Tag Archives: new york times

What Becomes of Stage Scenery, 1903

The following is a portion of an article which first appeared in The New York Times on June 7, 1903.

In the Spring of the year the scenery of plays that have failed in New York in the course of the Winter and the season which draws to a close may be found accumulated in a large storage warehouse far over on the west side of the city, in the locality of Twenty-eighth Street. This has served during many years as the chief mausoleum of the remains of these failures. The expenses of the interment include cartage at $5 a load, handling by the warehouse employes at $2 a load, and storage at $4 a load monthly. The acceptance states that settlement must be made quarterly, and that all goods held in arrears in payment twelve months will be seized and sold at auction. There is also the little bill for insurance which many an owner contracts with the fond hope that something may happen in the fire line before the year’s end.

In addition to this large place of storage there are a couple of rambling old stables on Thirteenth Street, east of First Avenue where much scenery that in the last half dozen years cost a snug fortune reposes in solid stacks awaiting the last judgement. In a small room of a neighboring scene painter are the models on view of the handsome interiors and exteriors piled away. Now and then somebody, harboring the notion of producing a play for trial at a nominal expense, drops in to examine this second-hand stock. Nothing results, however, satisfactory to any one concerned. The scenery representing picturesque mountain retreats and grottoes, on view once in a great spectacle, is a misfit for a domestic drama or a comedy. The nine scenes of a melodrama that sunk $6,500 are also of no use in the play, which requires new features up to date.

Mention should be made of the fact, though, that since the stock companies became more or less prosperous in and around New York, some small opportunity has come in sight to unload the scenery in storage. But such interest as there can be for the general reader in this statement must be stimulated by calling attention to the absurd difference between the cost of the scenery and its selling price. The manager, for instance, of two stock theatres in Brooklyn purchased not very long ago from a well-known player, who has given up being his own manager, five loads of scenery, nearly all new, and representing a cash outlay of almost $4,000, for $75. The cost of transportation across the bridge was $25 additional. There were seven wall-drops included in these loads, any one of which cost more originally than the whole purchase at second hand.

Originally published in The New York Times, June 7, 1903.

Dragons of Yesterday and Today

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.

As it turns out, I have been able to find information, including pictures, drawings and construction details, about nearly every Fafner ever built at The Met. In previous posts, I have shared information on the Fafners from 1887, 1913 and 1947, as well as the fearsome beast constructed for the operas in 1896 and 1903 (which was rebuilt in 1906).

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.)

Original sketch for the forest where Fafner appears.
Original sketch by Günther Schneider-Siemssen for the forest where Fafner appears.

The following photograph is taken from a 1975 Opera News showing where Fafner is about to appear.

Siegfried awaits Fafner at his cave.
“Eager to learn fear, the hero awaits Fafner at his cave.” From “Opera News”, found at the Metropolitan Opera Archive.

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.

A 1988 New York Times article describes the appearance and construction of Schneider-Siemssen’s Fafner:

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.'”

In a 1993 New York Times review, Edward Rothstein also notes the similarity to Giger’s Alien creature. He writes:

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:

Günther Schneider-Siemssen's sketches for Fafner's entrance
Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sketches for Fafner’s entrance. From the Metropolitan Opera Archives

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:

Siegfried at the Met Opera. Photo by Sara Krulwich, New York Times
Siegfried at the Met Opera. Photo by Sara Krulwich, New York Times

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.

Memories of Shows Past, 1904

The following is the conclusion of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built,  all the skills a prop maker must possess, making things from papier mache, and dealing with people who don’t know what they want.

The old property master is thoroughly happy in his dusty den. He stays there from early morning till dusk. He likes the room so much that he brings his lunch with him to avoid going out for it. It is evident, after a moment’s talk with him, that his is not living and working at his trade every day merely for the shekels that may come to him.

Every object in the dingy place brings back the memory of some man or playhouse formerly dear to him. He hates to throw away anything that has been put on the stage and has come back to him. It is not so much that he made as it is that So-and-So wore or handled it.

The visitor to his shop some rainy afternoon will find a unique sort of gathering. Of the ten or a dozen men sitting around on old couches, chairs, or boxes, not one but is a stage carpenter, property maker, or in some way connected with the behind-the-scenes phase of the theatrical business.

They all know Morse, and they have come to chat with him. Most of them are as old and experienced as he is, and consequently they have a sort of reverence for him. They talk of theatrical affairs from fifty years ago up to the present day. They argue over whether a stage that was torn down thirty years ago had one trap door or two, whether it was 35 or 40 feet broad. Their hands linger fondly over scroll saws and other implements, and they never leave at nightfall without heaving a sigh that the hours have passed so quickly.

It is their greatest joy—this discussion of their trade and of the good old days. And there is nowhere they would rather go for their gossip than to the half-hidden shop labeled “E. L. Morse, Theatrical Properties.”

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

Morse can make anything if you know what you want, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built,  all the skills a prop maker must possess, and making things from papier mache.

Even the manufacture of an automobile does not frighten the veteran property master. He has one tied to his ceiling. To be sure it is not a real auto with a real chauffeur and real gasoline motive power, but it looks enough like it. It is entirely of wood, wheels and all. It is constructed so that a man can sit inside, invisible, working a treadle, and making the wheels go round. The chauffeur is not alive—only a dummy. His hand stays on the lever and his head is occasionally turned by a wire worked by the man on the inside.

“I don’t want the thing,” says the old maker. “The man who ordered it owes $50 on it, and the sooner he brings the cash and takes his auto away the better I’ll like it.”

“Speaking of people ordering things,” he continues, “you don’t know what a crazy man is until you see some fool vaudeville manager come here and try to get me to make things for him.

“He hasn’t the slightest idea of how anything’s made, and he couldn’t draw a straight line or cut the peeling off an apple. But he’s seen a picture in some Sunday paper and takes a notion he would like to have something like it for a show. He comes in and tries to tell me what he wants. All he can do is to wave his hands about and say: ‘Well, you know what I want.’ Of course I don’t know, and I generally end by letting the man know I think he’s crazy—which he is. Then he leaves, thinking I’m a hopeless fool because I can’t make what he wants. And he doesn’t even know what it is!”

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

Models and Mache, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built and a run down of all the skills a prop maker must possess.

On the table of the shop is a country kitchen, not over a foot wide and a foot high. Yet in it is every piece of rude furniture which was to be put in the large kitchen on the stage. Not only in general appearance is the model perfect, but in all the smallest details. The kitchen table even has a top that folds back—it is hardly 2 inches long—just like tables which Mr. Morse says are found in obscure farmhouses in New England. The chairs, mantelpieces, window frames—all are exact. The whole thing was whittled out with a knife by the master of the shop himself.

“Why, that would make a wonderful toy for some child,” suggests the visitor.

“Yes, and I’m going to give it to one,” Mr. Morse replies. “I never thought about any one’s wanting such a thing until some one suggested it the other day. I guess I’ll not throw away any more.”

All around the room, on boxes and chairs, sit vases to be used in a musical comedy. They are modeled after some rare foreign pottery. The look of them is so frail that you forget they are not breakable, and tread gingerly in and out among the confusion of obstacles. This amuses the master of the shop.

“Oh, you can’t hurt these things,” he says.

To prove it he playfully cuffs one of the vases off the box and across the room. It falls and bounces up and down like a rubber ball. There is not even a dent, for it’s only papier maché, and you could play football with it half an hour without hurting it.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.