Two light-properties in “Faust”â€”the fire-cup and the spark-emitting sword of Mephistophelesâ€”are worth describing. The fire-cup is a goblet in the bottom of which are chlorate of potash, red fire, and sugar. Above these is suspended a thimble three-quarters filled with sulphuric acid and so delicately balanced that a slight movement causes the acid to drip on the powders and to ignite them, the fumes of the sugar leaving an agreeable taste upon the lips of the singer.
The method of causing the sparks to fly from the sword is as follows: Two wire-gauze plates connected with electric wires are placed upon the stage at the points where Mephistopheles and Valentine are to stand. A metal socket is sunk into the heel of the right buskin of each of the singers, and a wire of the same color as their costumes is attached to each socket, wound around the leg and passed through the belt. Standing upon the gauze plates they, as they draw their swords, slip the ends of the wires into the hilts and, when the swords touch electrical connection is made.
The flash of Wotan’s spear when Siegfried cuts it through with one stroke of his sword is produced by an explosion of gun-cotton in the spear and ignited by electricity, the electric wire passing through the weapon.
It is noteworthy in connection with this circumstance that the apparatus was devised by an Englishman and that Wagner employed an English property-master to design and make the dragon for the “Siegfried” performances at Baireuth. The English pantomime productions, which involve the manufacture of numerous mechanical and trick properties, have sharpened the ingenuity of English property-masters until they have come to be acknowledged at the head of their profession. “Siegfried” never having been given in England by any but a German company whose scenery and properties were brought from Germany, theÂ combat with the dragon remained as ludicrous a feature of the performances of this work as it was conceded to have been at Baireuth, until the production of “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera-House. For this a dragon was designed and manufactured which the German artists declare to be the most practical and impressive monster they have seen.
The first feature of an operatic production to have the benefit of a rehearsal is the scenery. As soon as the scenic artist and the scene-painters have finished their work the stage-manager orders a scenic rehearsal. This might be called a performance of an opera without music. The scenes are set up and changed, light effects tried, and mechanical properties like Talepulka, the “Lohengrin” swan, and the “Siegfried” dragon “worked” and tested until all goes as smoothly as it should at a performance. This is a rehearsal for the men who set and change the scenesâ€”the master-machinist and his subordinatesâ€”and for those who manage the light effectsâ€”the gas-engineer and the “gas-boys”â€”and for the property-master and his men. Before the scene can be set it is necessary to “run the stage,” that is, to get everything in the line of properties, such as stands of arms, chairs, and tables, and scenery, ready to be put in place. If there is a “runway,” which is an elevation like the rocky ascent in the second act of “Die WalkÃ¼re,” or the rise of ground toward the Wartburg in “TannhÃ¤user,” it is “built” by the stage-carpenters; and for this purpose the stage is divided into “bridges”â€”sections of the stage-floor that can be raised on slots. Meanwhile the “grips,” as the scene-shifters are called, have hold of the side scenes ready to shove them on, and the “fly-men” who work the drops and borders are at the ropes in the first fly-gallery.
The scene set, it is carefully inspected by the scenic artist and stage-manager, who determine whether any features require alteration. A tower may hide a good perspective bit in the drop: it may be found that a set-tree at the prompt-centre second entrance will fill up a perplexing gapâ€”but changes are rarely needed after the scene has been painted, because a very good idea of it was formed from the model. The length of a scenic rehearsal depends upon the number of the light-effects and mechanical properties. For instance, in the first act of “Siegfried” the light-effects are so numerous and complicated that it is a current saving in opera-houses that the success of this act is “all a matter of gas.” When all effects and contrivances of this kind have heen thoroughly tested, the stage-manager gives the order: “Strike!” The “grips” shove off the side-scenes, the flymen raise the drops, the “clearers” run off the properties and set-pieces, and the stage-carpenters lower the bridges. The scene of the second act is immediately set, and the time required for the change of scene noted. If the change is not so quickly accomplished as it should be, it is repeated until the weak spot in the work is discovered.
[T]he property-master had made out a list of the articles to be manufactured in his department. He had not been hampered by the problem of historical accuracy. He found drawings of Mexican antiquities from which he made sketches of the Mexican implements of war and peace to be used in the opera, and from a genuine Mexican relic of that period, seen by chance in the show window of a store, he obtained his scheme for the principal property in the work, the image of the god Talepulka. He found he could have all these historically correct, except that he did not think it necessary to go to the length of decorating the idol with a paste made from a mixture of grain with human blood. A problem arose, however, when he considered the construction of the idol. He ascertained from the libretto that the idol and the back wall of the temple are shattered by an explosion, and that, just before the catastrophe, flames flash from the idol’s eyes and mouth. He consulted with the gas-engineer, who had already considered the matter, and concluded that it would be most practical to produce the flames by means of gas supplied through a hose running from the wings.
The property-master then made the following note in his plot book: “Flames leap up high from the heathen imageâ€”the gas-hose must be detached and drawn into the wings immediately afterward so as not to be visible when the image has fallen apart.” The necessity of having the gas-hose detached determined the method of shattering the idol. It is a theatrical principle that a mechanical property should be so constructed that it can be worked by the smallest possible number of men. This principle was kept in view when the method of shattering Talepulka was determined upon. The god was divided from top to bottom into two irregular pieces. These were held together by a line, invisible from the audience, which was tied around the image near the pedestal. Another line, leading into the wings, was attached to the side of the top of one of the pieces. At the first report of the explosion a man concealed behind the pedestal, whose duty it also is to detach the gas-hose, cuts the line fastened around the idol, and the pieces slightly separate, so that the image seems to have cracked in two jagged pieces. At the next report a man in the wings pulls at the other line and the two pieces fall apart.
The manner in which the effect of flames flashing from the eyes and the mouth of Talepulka was produced was only outlined in the statement that it was accomplished by gas supplied through a hose. The complete device of the gas-engineer, a functionary who in a modern theatrical establishment of the first rank must also be an electrician, was as follows: Behind the image the flow of gas was divided into two channels by a T. One stream fed concealed gas-jets near the eyes and mouth, which were lighted before the curtain rose and played over large sprinkler burners in the eyes and mouth. These burners were attached to a pipe fed by the second stream. When the time arrived for the fire to flash, the man behind the pedestal turned on the second stream of gas, which, as soon as it issued from the sprinkler-burners, was ignited by the jets. By freeing and checking this stream of gas the man caused the image to flash fire at brief intervals. Thus only two men were required to work this important property.
The regions in which the labor of preparing a musico-dramatic work for production goes on are a veritable bee-hive of activity. They embrace, besides the rooms of the heads of the various departmentsâ€”musical conductor, stage-manager, scenic artist, costumer, property-master, gas-engineer, and master carpenterâ€”those in which their ideas are materialized. Connected, for instance, with the property department is a modelling-room, a casting-room, two rooms in which such properties as flowers, grass-mats, and birds are manufactured, two armories, and three or four apartments in which properties are storedâ€”but this is taking the reader a little too far behind the footlights for the present.
Some idea of the labor this involves may be formed from the statement that at the Metropolitan Opera-House it took from August, 1887, until January, 1888, to mobilize this host for the conquest of Mexico under “Ferdinand Cortez,” [Eric: an opera by Gaspare Spontini]Â a period of about the same length as that usually consumed at large opera-houses in preparing a work for production. On the 1st of August, 1887, the managing director handed the libretto to the members of his staff. They immediately set to work to exhaust the bibliography of the episode lying at the basis of the action as thoroughly as though they intended to write a history.
I said that spectacular works (“scene-painter’s and property-master’s pieces”) called for a far greater quantity of material features than “Tristan and Isolde.” It can be stated of Wagner’s works in general that the properties required for their production are less numerous and that as a rule the scenery is less gorgeous than that required for spectacular opera. Yet it is more difficult to mount a Wagner opera or music-drama than it is to mount the “Queen of Sheba,” “Merlin,” “Aida,” “L’Africaine,” or “Ferdinand Cortez.” The reason is that Wagner’s works call for quality instead of quantity… [The property-master] is confronted with problems of great intricacy, the solution of which requires mechanical genius as distinguished from the mere manual dexterity called for in the manufacture of swords, shields, and numerous other properties. Indeed, the mechanical properties used in Wagner’s works are constant objects of study, attempts to improve them by simplifying the apparatus for working them being made from time to time.