Tag Archives: 1912

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 2, 1912

The following is the second portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. The first part can be read here.

If the property master should take a notion to lose himself among the bewildering objects under his care he could stay lost as effectually as Charlie Ross. He wouldn’t even lack for victuals and drink if certain operas were put on often enough and he could get at the eatables before the artists saw him. In “Donne Curiose,” for instance, there’s enough food provided to make a fairly good meal if a person’s appetite isn’t too grasping. Not a very filling diet perhaps, but what there is of it is first class.

In the first act Scotti gets a dish of perfectly good ice cream; while in the last act the four inquisitive ladies swipe real cakes off Harlequin’s tray. The opera company buys these latter dainties from one of the best caterers in New York and pays 84 cents a dozen for them.

After Harlequin has been robbed of his pâtisserie he again raids the supper table and reappears with a saucer of white stuff which he spoons down with much gusto. This is whipped cream from charlotte russe, bought for this particular incident.

There is also a beauteous cake from which a large slice is apparently cut. The cake if of papier mâché, a permanent institution with a wedge opening into which a slice of real cake is inserted when the opera is to be given.

In the first act of “Madama Butterfly” Martin and Scotti are the gay boys with their real whiskey and soda and cigarettes, all furnished by the benevolent property department. That sounds good to some folks, but there are even more joyous occasions in certain operas, when the company tickles the palates of the pampered singers with genuine champagne.

A fine imported brand.

In “La Tosca” Scarpia looks as if he were having a square meal when he dines apparently on a thick beefsteak. But for once these culinary appearances are deceitful. Beefsteak cannot be stowed away as fast as the exigencies of a star part in grand opera demand. Consequently Scarpia’s beefsteak is only gingerbread, trimmed to a tenderloin design and garnished with parsley. Although the stake is only gingerbread, the wine that sends it on its way is excellent claret.

This combining of victuals and vocalization is not a task which any singer relishes. When the property man was asked whether the artists ever express a preference for a particular brand of wine or whiskey and whether the ladies insist on some favorite kind of cakes or candy—there is confectionery in “Butterfly”—he said they hadn’t got quite so finicky yet.

“We give them the best of everything,” he said. “They ought to be satisfied.”

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, 1912

The following article first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. Note: This article consistently misspells the name of Edward Siedle, who was the technical director at the Met.

Twenty Thousand Distinct Objects in the Opera’s Property Room

They Range From a Feather to a Set of Furniture, Include Armor, Food Supplies and Fans, and Show in Every Detail Careful Attention to Artistic and Historic Veracity.

One of the busiest men in this strenuous town is Edward Siedel of the Metropolitan Opera House. If you should run across a man wearing a black fedora hat on his head, an anxious frown upon his corrugated brow and a cigar between his teeth, seek no further. You will have found the hero of this tale.

Twenty-four hours out of the day Mr. Siedel is technical director of the opera house. The rest of the time he eats, sleeps and diverts himself. He got two winks of sleep one night last week. That was oversleeping himself by one wink, but he doesn’t expect it to happen again this year.

Mr. Siedel is the high muckamuck to whom all the stage hands, carpenters, electricians, property men and so forth are responsible. As an example of the extent of his duties take a single one of these departments, that of properties. Maybe everybody knows that a stage property, or “prop,” is everything used in a stage setting except the main scenery. Also everything carried by members of the company, artists, chorus or supers, except the clothes actually worn, which come under the head of costumes, and the wigs, which have a classification all their own.

In charge of the property department is a master of properties, who has to look after an insignificant total of about 20,000 objects! These range all the way from so trivial a thing as a single feather to whole sets of expensive furniture. The feather does duty in various operas in which a quill pen is needed, as in “Tosca,” where it is used to write the unhappy singer’s passport before she assassinates Scarpia.

The opera house property department has enough furniture to fill a hotel. There are over 100 side chairs, as those without arms are called; about forty arm chairs and fifteen sofas, not counting various settees, benches and wooden stools. In the same category are about fifty tables, several screens, hatracks, a cheval glass, chests and so on. All this is real furniture.

In “Donne Curiose” the settings for the two scenes of the first act are perhaps more costly, so far as the properties are concerned, than any others to be seen at the Metropolitan. In the first scene, showing the gaming room, the chairs are of wood and real leather, the tables and the buffet are handsome pieces of furniture and the wine coolers and similar articles on the buffet are of good plated silver. In the second scene the chairs are of gilt and brocade, there are several handsome tables and a beautiful cheval glass which was made to order.

The opera house is pretty well fixed to repel an attack, for in the property master’s department there are about 500 swords of all shapes and sizes, 350 helmets, 100 breastplates, 8 full suits of armor, scores of spears, a lot of guns and even some big sticks which would make T.R. himself sit up and take notice. The last named belong to the giants in the Ring and cause an ordinary shillelah to look like a baby’s rattle.

All those little flowering shrubs for “Madama Butterfly” are properties. So are the bunches of flowers used in the second act of that opera, the garlands used in “Lobetanz” and other pieces, the apple blossom leaves showered on the Goose Girl in “Königskinder”, and the dead leaves which drop in “Parsifal.” There is a pretty good sized vegetable kingdom, in fact, under the property man’s care.

He is the Jove too who launches the thunderbolts by means of the thunder drum, although the lightning owes allegiance only to the chief electrician. The thunder drum, which looks more like an overgrown squirrel cage than like a drum, is classed as one of the fifty-five real musical instruments which belong in  the property department.

These are not the fake harps, as in “Lobetanz,” or other imitation instruments but the real thing. They are all numbered, 1 to 55, and include such a curious variety as the thunder drum above mentioned, whistles, wind makers, bells, trumpets, a piano and the great pipe organ itself.

Mighty few persons in the audiences that listen to “Aida,” for instance, know that there is a stage band at the opera house entirely separate from the orchestra. Its members play those silver trumpets in “Aida” and they are the heralds in “Lohengrin.” In fact whenever any instrument is to be played on the stage itself a member of this band does it.

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

The Unreality of Stage Realism

I found the following passage quite interesting. It is from an article written by Elisabeth Hunt in 1912, at the dawn of the New Stagecraft movement:

We are roused to full consciousness of what we have long dimly felt — that costly stage realism has o’erleapt itself and begun to create unreality. Practical properties are all very well; but when they are so ingenious and expensive as to attract attention to themselves, they are as disillusioning to an audience as if they were cheaply and absurdly impractical. Distraction is distraction, as fatal to dramatic illusion when it results from foolish extravagance as when it is mere poverty of resources.

For example: A genuine telephone switchboard on the stage becomes at once the most unreal thing in the world. Being where it does not belong, and where it must have been difficult to place, it makes a sensation—which it would not in life. To the audience it is a constant reminder that the stage where it is fixed is a stage, and not the room which it pretends to be.

As a matter of fact, a cheap, make-believe switchboard that could not be manipulated at all would not destroy the illusion more completely.

It continues:

As to the statement that realistic surroundings inspire the actor, somehow that does not ring true. And when extreme examples are urged, they sound positively puerile.

In one of the plays of last season, a certain stage represented a doctor’s office with the usual furniture, including a large desk and a stack of card index boxes. The public was privileged to know — press notices, probably — that the desk was completely filled, drawers, pigeonholes and all, with letters and papers such as a physician would accumulate, all addressed to the stage doctor or signed with his name; that the stationery spread before him had his name and address on letter heads and envelopes; and that, to crown this triumph of managerial art, the index boxes were full of cards, every one of which was completely made out.

The actor who played the part of the doctor was experienced and accomplished. It really seemed possible that he might have kept his impersonation, even if some of those cards had been left blank. In fact, any actor who has hard training back of him is apt to resent the idea that his concept of a part can be made to depend on preposterous realism which is invisible or meaningless to the audience. An imagination that is superior to footlights, open flies, and canvas walls is not likely to suffer from the consciousness that an unused drawer in a desk is empty. Moreover, if an actor’s hold on his part can be strengthened by mechanical means, it may as easily be weakened, in case some contraption is forgotten in setting the stage. What inspires the intelligent actor more than anything else that can be furnished him in the theater is a comfortable, commodious, well ventilated dressing room. Such humane accommodation could not, perhaps, be made to figure in a startling press notice; but it would quite conceivably encourage better art.

Nearly a hundred years later, and it’s sounding all too familiar.

You can read the entire article, entitled “Acting Scenery”, at Google Books.