Tag Archives: Edward Siedle

Dragons and Geese in Opera, 1915

Edward Siedle, Technical Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, gives the author an account of some of the animals and fantastic creatures used on stage in the opera. I posted another selection from this article last year:

by Mercy Gorham

“To make the dragon in ‘Siegfried’ possible, two men in turn act as the front and hind legs of the creature and control the working of the mouth, eyes and ears. Two more are required to handle the wires which lower and elevate the head, beside the electrician who watches the lights in the eyes, the one who controls the vapor and steam proceeding from the dragon’s nostrils, and lastly the conductor, who has to watch the score carefully, so as to give the cue for the various movements of the dragon. The technical director himself attends to the side movements of the head.

“The bear in ‘Siegfried’ is worked by the property man. In ‘Koenigskinder’ the geese are real, and must be cared for when not on duty in a room of their own. Every day their wants are attended to, their bath kept clean. Though used but six times during the opera season, these aristocratic birds live on the fat of the land. There is one property goose that takes the crown away and later brings it back again, and this is operated by the property man.

“‘Lohengrin’ has its swans, ‘Rheingold’ its small dragon, ‘The Magic Flute’ its enormous elephant with howdah and Oriental draperies. While these are but minor illustrations of the inventive genius necessary to produce grand opera, they give some small idea of the tremendous responsibility resting on the heads of departments beyond the curtain line, the infinite attention to detail necessary, and the enormous labor, both mental and physical, required to give grand opera patrons the series of perfect stage pictures for which they pay and which they have a right to demand.”

Gorham, Mercy. “Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line.” The Theatre Magazine Jan. 1915: 41. Google Books. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

The Elephant Kicks, 1891

This article first appeared in an 1891 newspaper. The elephant discussed here was built by famed Met Opera technical director Edward Siedle.

Update: I found another article which claims this elephant was built by Woolson Morse. I now think Siedle built the elephant for the 1904 remount of this show.

Actor DeWolf Hopper’s big elephant that drinks a quart of beer every night and on Saturday afternoons at the Broadway Theater, threatens to become troublesome to the management, says the New York Sun. The elephant has been kicking vigorously for a week past. The kick comes from the elephant’s hindquarters. In order to understand the full significance of the insubordinate behavior it is necessary to explain that in private life the “Wang” elephant is Mr. James Flynn and Mr. Mike Stevens Holahan. Mr. Flynn is the accomplished front legs and beer-drinking trunk of the elephant, and Mr. Holahan is the hind legs, and it is he who initiated the kicking. Mr. Flynn shows a disposition to join in the protest, and favors an elephantine strike.

When he is not the hind legs Mr. Holahan is the property-man of the opera company. He has to look after the costumes and wax candles, spears, bits of cut paper, Wang’s treasure-chest, and a lot of other miscellaneous stuffs used in the stage production. He was requested the other night to work on Sundays, too, and look after the distribution of display posters along Broadway on that day, and to paste the posters on the bill-boards. He intimated that this was crowding him a trifle too much, and that he did not propose to dabble in paste-pots at all. The matter was compromised by hiring a professional bill-poster to do the work.

Mr. James Flynn’s complaint is based on the plain ground of overwork. Mr. Flynn is a strong man, but he asserts that it is getting to be pretty tough work on hot nights carrying Mr. de Wolf Hopper on his head, and working the trunk of the elephant at the same time. Mr. Hopper is about seven feet high and weights in proportion to his towering stature. Mr. Flynn says this weight, combined with a Turkish bath atmosphere inside the papier-mache head of the elephant, and the necessity of keeping track of the innumerable pulleys that operate the rubber trunk of the elephant, gives him a headache every night. Moreover, he says that after he escapes from his half-hour imprisonment in this oven, he has to appear as a dancing master, and lead a dance of Emperor Wang’s twelve Siamese daughters-in-law, and later he has to climb on stilts and become a high priest—considerably higher, in point of fact, than Mr. Hopper himself. Mr. Flynn says that he quits the performance completely played out after his triple achievement. Manager Ben Stevens said last night that he thought he could square matters temporarily by allowing Mr. Flynn to partake of a bumper of beer as generous as that consumed every night by the elephant.

A funny thing in connection with the discontented elephant is that any number of children and adults, too, have written to Manager Stevens to find out whether the elephant is really alive. A Broadway merchant made a bet a fortnight ago, after he had seen the elephant drink its beer, that it was really a live baby elephant. He bet a new white tile on the point.

“The Elephant Kicks.” The Morning Call [San Francisco] 8 June 1891: 7. Print.

Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line, 1915

The following originally appeared in a 1915 issue of Theatre Magazine:

Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line

by Mercy Gorham

“Every night is a first night with us,” observed Edward Siedle, Technical Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, as he watched a scene “break” in “Koenigskinder.” He stood talking of that mysterious realm beyond the footlights, always an enigma to the average operagoer, and he talked entertainingly, too, as a man is apt to do when his work is his hobby…

“I suppose the ‘property’ department is most popular with the laity, doubtless because it is better understood than the rest. It is a very important division, too, as will be seen when one takes into consideration the enormous number of properties used in all the operas and the vital importance of each in its turn. Take the matter of floor coverings alone, such as carpets, medallions and stage cloths, for in every scene the stage is covered with a cloth in keeping with the ensemble, and one can compass in a small measure the enormous amount of material there is to be cared for.

“Each scene calls for its own equipment. If it is a garden then there is earth and grass, benches and marbles to be provided. A street scene calls for paved ways; palaces for tesselated floors; the small parlor for its hard-wood floors and modern rugs and carpets; doors and windows for curtains and draperies; tables for pedestals and bric-a-brac; gardens for trees and flowers and rock scenes for their practical rocks.

“As the scenes of operas are laid in every part of the world, there must be a great variety of settings provided. Not a few illustrate mythological subjects, while others are Oriental in spirit. The properties of each require not only care in the handling, but a lot of research, trouble and expense in the making. These have all to be listed in their plots, showing precisely where they are placed when on the stage. Those not on the stage, but which are brought on during the performance, must also be carefully marked on the plot.”

Gorham, Mercy. “Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line.” The Theatre Magazine Jan. 1915: 21. Google Books. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

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.