The Ring Cycle is perhaps the pinnacle of western opera, and The Metropolitan Opera is one of the preeminent opera companies in the US. I have become interested in one of the major props/machines/creatures in Siegfried, the third opera in the cycle. Our hero, Siegfried, heads to the forest where he meets Fafner, a terrifying dragon with whom he must battle.
It appears only three more Fafner dragons have been made for The Met, which is what we will look at next.
A new 1967 production for the Met was designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Wolfgang Weber. Portions of this Ring Cycle were originally presented at the Easter Festival in Salzburg. It was then invited to transfer to the Met, where the set was adapted (and partially recreated) to fit the stage. According to this site, no known audio or video recordings exist of this production. I have included the few renderings and photos that do exist of this scene below, though neither show Fafner himself.
The following image and text comes from this page.
And then he appears as a giant animal, very old and gruesome, his eyes everywhere – a spongy mass, belching fire and steam as he falls on Siegfried’s deadly sword.
(From G. Schneider-Siemssen in conversation with K. Pahlen: Die Bühne, mein Leben, Selke Verlag 1996; (The Stage, My Life – English translation by James Mulder), in press.)
The following photograph is taken from a 1975 Opera News showing where Fafner is about to appear.
We get one more brief description from a review by Byron Belt in the Newhouse Newspapers, found in the Metropolitan Opera Archive. “The stage business for the battle between Siegfried and Fafner made the dragon into more of a primordial ooze, but we found it most exciting.”
The Met invited Günther Schneider-Siemssen to design the Ring Cycle again in 1986, this time directed by Otto Schenk. This became one of the most successful Ring Cycles produced by the Met in modern times.
This thing is growing into a pulsating, gelatinous blob, its four slimy tentacles flailing the air and its one green eye fixed on Siegfried. It’s the Creature From the Black Forest.
Now it’s opening its huge mouth, a great hairy orifice with long, sharp, crooked teeth tinged with red (blood?) and breathing smoke.
Joseph Clark, the Met’s technical director, tells The Times they went with a low-tech solution involving six prop men inside to operate the arms, mouth and eye. This allows the dragon to hear and respond to the music and to Siegfried’s movements.
The Time article continues:
The dragon they built is stretched across a 8-by-12-foot frame and billows out from the floor on a hydraulic piston. Once the dragon is inflated, the six prop men step inside the frame on the stage floor and operate the arms, mouth and eye, all of which are maneuvered by steel rods through universal joints. The rods are attached to a kiddy-car steering wheel and the prop men can guide the arms, extend them, open and close the mouth and eye as they would drive a car in a video game.
Up close, Fafner looks like something put together by a schoolchild for a crafts class. The dragon is covered with a pleated Chinese silk of forest browns and greens, bits of old plastic cups and some goop that resembles candle drippings. The eye is constructed of wire and fiberglass, the teeth are made of foam and the mouth has a fringe around it that, as Mr. Clark put it, ”looks like one of those lampshades one sees in old German hotels.” Old-fashioned dry ice in the mouth makes the smoke.
The article concludes by asking Joseph Clark if Schneider-Siemssen was inspired by anything when designing this version of Fafner. “I do know that between the time we did ‘Die Walkure’ for last season and started to work on ‘Siegfried,'” he said, “he had seen the movie ‘Aliens.'”
The arachnidan role, at any rate, seemed reserved for Fafner in the second act, in which the most problems with this traditional production by Otto Schenk also emerged. A ramp circles around a shallow crevice hiding the dragon (whose miked words were intoned by Matti Salminen); with a single eye like a woozy Cyclops, teeth like those of Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” nemesis and giant limbs like rotting trees, he was difficult to take seriously. Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s set created an ancient, slightly ruined forest without allowing it to give way to the youthful greenery heard in Wagner’s Forest Murmurs.
The Metropolitan Opera Archives has one of the original renderings for the scene where Fafner is about to appear:
This production was also part of an historic telecast of the entire Ring Cycle by the Met. The scene with Fafner is below.
The Ring Cycle which is currently in repertory at the Opera is the much-talked about production by Robert Lepage. While there is plenty to read about the massive “machine” which was built, and the use of projections, very little is said about the dragon. I am not sure who built it; this production was built by both the Metropolitan Opera’s shop and Lepage’s Ex Machina company, and a whole slew of outside contractors worked on bits and pieces.
We have a photograph provided by the production:
We also have some (fairly scathing) descriptions from reviews of this production. In a New York Times review, Anthony Tommasini says “In his guise as a dragon, the giant Fafner (the formidable bass Hans-Peter König) was a huge, puppetlike thing with scaly skin, spiky teeth and glassy eyes: a little too cute.” In a review for Financial Times, Martin Bernheimer calls it “a silly oversize puppethead”.
So there you have it: every Fafner dragon from every production of Siegfried done by the Metropolitan Opera! I hope you enjoyed it.
This Japanese “museum” of fantastic specimens (actually gaffs of imaginary creatures) shows what you can accomplish with papier-mâché. The museum itself is in Japanese, but the link is to a page which attempts to guide you through it in English (h/t to Propnomicon for pointing me to the site).
La Bricoleuse has been doing some interesting documentation of the armor that was rented for PlayMaker Rep’s upcoming repertory productions of Henry IV and Henry V (the same shows I just worked on). This post, for example, looks at photos of various pieces and annotates the choices made in their construction, describing what she likes (and what she doesn’t).
Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwölfbrüderstiftungen has a collection of over 1300 color illustrations detailing many of the manufacturing processes and crafts from 1388 to the 19th century. The pages are in German, so you may want to run it through a translator.
It happens in a lot of plays. You need a photograph, either in a frame or not. Maybe it’s part of the story, or the designer just wants it as set dressing. First you need to do all your homework on the photograph, just as you would any other prop. Look for all the clues you can in the script; you don’t want to bring the perfect picture of a child on a beach only to have the actor in the following scene recite the line, “he used to love going to the mountains.”
Is the photograph of someone in the cast or someone who never appears? You have more options if the person in the photograph never appears on stage, and you don’t have to match his or her appearance to an actors. Either way, you have a number of options for getting a photograph onto the stage.
Have one of the actors bring a photograph in
If the photograph is supposed to be of the actor as a younger person, the most realistic option is to have the actor bring an older photo of him or herself. If possible (and it should be possible in your prop shop), you should scan the original photograph and make your own prints. This will keep the actor’s irreplaceable memories from becoming damaged or lost during the production, and will give you the option of resizing it if necessary.
Using an actor’s photograph will also work if the photograph needs to be of the character’s close relative. An older photograph of the actor can be his child or younger brother. Likewise, an actor can use a photograph of her own father for the character’s father.
Take your own photograph
If you know early enough in the process that you will need a photograph of one or more of the actors, you can schedule a photo shoot with them. You can even work with the costume designer and other production people. You will need to talk to your production manager about this, since it will involve other departments, and there are rules governing the photographing of Equity actors during a production.
You can also take pictures of other people at the theatre or your friends and family if they have the right look. You may also wish to approach strangers you see or hire someone to pose for you, though for most productions, this does not make the most sense of time and money.
Use a found photograph
You can find old and anonymous photo albums at flea markets, on eBay, or any of the other usual sources for abandoned objects. Books and magazines are other great sources. Just like borrowing an actor’s photograph, it is a good idea to scan these and print new copies for your play.
You can also, obviously, search for images online. I described a lot of these techniques in my previous article, “How to research.” Found photography can be tricky. The problem is you often want amateur photography rather than professional photography. You also don’t want to use famous or well-known people in a photograph if the subject is meant to be unknown. Amateur photographs of unknown people are much less organized and searchable. In a lot of cases, you just have to luck onto a huge group of potential images and browse through every single one to find the perfect shot.
If you search for “found photographs” on Google, you can easily get sucked in for hours looking at pictures from all decades. At this point I should remind everyone that I am not a lawyer, and while this article tells you how you can find images for your production, I make no claim as to whether you can use them or not. Defer to your production manager, or whoever is in charge of the legal aspects of the show.
Create a composite
If you can’t find or make the perfect photograph for your production, you can combine two or more photos together. You can combine two or more people together, or put people in front of a different background. Before computer-editing software, you could literally cut and paste the photographs together, and then rephotograph the result. It is much more elegant and efficient to do this nowadays on a computer, and it will behoove you to learn how or find people you can delegate this to.
Alter any of the above
If you scanned in the photograph you made or acquired from any of the above methods, you can manipulate it in the computer. You can turn it into black and white or sepia-toned. You can also print it out and use any of your favorite paper-ageing or distressing techniques.