This past summer, our production of The Grand Duchess of GerolsteinÂ at the Santa Fe Opera had a lot of tricks. Like… a lot of them. One trick I worked on was a set of magically-appearing flags. The set had seven flag poles along one wall, and during one big moment of pomp and circumstance, the design team wanted flags to suddenly appear on them. The idea is kind of like those “bang” flags that pop out of guns in the cartoons.
The basic mechanism behind the trick is that each flagpole has a second pole which sleeves inside. The two poles have slightly less than half of their surface notched out, as you can see in the photo above. The outer pole is fixed in place on the set, while the inner pole can spin around inside. So you can spin the inner pole to a position where the whole flag pole looks like a solid rod, and the flag is trapped inside. Then when you spin the inner pole around so the notches line up, the flag is free to drop down.
You can watch it all in action in the video below. The video also shows how I rigged the tubes so they could be activated by pulling a string off-stage, since there was no room on set to activate them directly.
Creative Choices has published a fantastic article about Antony Barnett, the Head of Props at the Royal Opera House. He has been working at the ROH since the mid-1980s. Incidentally, the ROH remounted a production ofÂ Cendrillon in 2011 that I worked on back in 2006; I built some pretty cool props for it, including Prince Charman’s throne, and it’s nice to see how well they have stood up.
The New York Times has an in-depth look at how the Metropolitan Opera stores and maintains all the sets for their repertory productions. I find this stuff fascinating, particularly since I’ve been reading a lot about how the Met’s technical department worked 100 years ago. The locations of their storage units may have changed, but the amount of work and organization they have to do to put up a different opera every night remains the same.
Bill Hunt has a “virtual tour” of Bob Burns’ massive movie prop collection. Scroll to the bottom of the article to see a slideshow of all the historical film props he has in his collection. Burns has been collecting for decades, and has quite a few unique pieces, including the only surviving King Kong armature from the original 1933 production.
Here’s a shorter interview of a working prop-maker; Rosie Tonkin is a UK-based freelancer and artist. It’s an interesting comparison between a young prop maker at the start of her career like Tonkin and a seasoned veteren like Barnett up above.
Finally, at last week’s Burlington Mini Maker Faire, I was making a miniature Dr. Who TARDIS out of paper, and handing away sheets to people to make their own. If you didn’t get one, or you couldn’t make it to the fair, you can download and print your own TARDIS, complete with instructions.
Matt Munson has a great blog post up called Materials, Time and Creativity. He talks about why custom-made props cost so much money. It’s a worthwhile read, whether you are a freelancer or work in a shop.
2StoryProps hasÂ quite the extensive post up about building a “Deadmau5 Cheese Head” (a helmet used by a Canadian DJ). There are photographs and videos galore, so it will take some time to get through this one, but it is well worth it.
It is sad, but not too surprising: New York City Opera is liquidating their warehouses. Their collection of props, costumes, lighting and other equipment from over eighty productions are being sold through an online auction until January 30th (though the website isn’t quite ready yet).
Stagebitz is an online project management software which first began beta-testing back in 2010. It’s designed to streamline all the tasks you handle when propping a show (or when working on scenery, costumes, etc.). They have recently secured a hefty investment that will allow the development of the software to really take off over the next few years; they will be at USITT this year where you can play around with the software and ask them any questions you wish.
But that’s not what this post is about. They have also brought on Mat Lawrence, who, up until now, was the head of props manufacturing at Opera Australia (whose home is the Sydney Opera House). The video below shows them working on the props and puppets for Julie Taymor’s 2012 Magic Flute. It looks like some pretty intense work there, and it is the kind of props shop many of us dream of working in.
The Ring Cycle is perhaps the pinnacle of western opera, and The Metropolitan Opera is one of theÂ preeminentÂ opera companies in the US. I have become interested in one of the major props/machines/creatures inÂ 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 byÂ GÃ¼nther Schneider-Siemssen and directed byÂ Wolfgang Weber. Portions of this Ring Cycle were originally presented at theÂ 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 BÃ¼hne, mein Leben, Selke Verlag 1996; (The Stage, My Life – English translation by James Mulder), in press.)
The following photograph is taken from a 1975Â Opera News showing where Fafner is about to appear.
We get one more brief description from a review byÂ Byron Belt in the Newhouse Newspapers, found in theÂ 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 GÃ¼nther Schneider-Siemssen to design the Ring Cycle again in 1986, this time directed byÂ 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.Â “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 aÂ New York Times review, Anthony Tommasini says “In his guise as a dragon, the giant Fafner (the formidable bass Hans-Peter KÃ¶nig) was a huge, puppetlike thing with scaly skin, spiky teeth and glassy eyes: a little too cute.”Â In aÂ review for Financial Times, Martin BernheimerÂ calls it “a silly oversize puppethead”.
So there you have it: every Fafner dragon from every production ofÂ Siegfried done by the Metropolitan Opera! I hope you enjoyed it.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies