Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House

By Gustav Kobbé

1888

 

Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.1

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Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House
By Gustav Kobbé

Scribner's Magazine
Volume 4 Issue 4
Pages 435-454
Published in 1888

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

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This title contains 9479 words.
Estimated reading time between 27 and 47 minutes.

Page numbers are indicated using square brackets, like [62], while footnotes are indicated using parenthesis, like (1).
[435]

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House

By Gustav Kobbé.

With illustrations from drawings by Robert Blum, Francis Day, M. J. Burns, O. H. Bacher, and H. B. Warren, and from photographs. Engravings by Fillebrown, E. Clement, J. Clement, and Delorme.

Ballet Rehearsing. Ballet Rehearsing. SOON after the curtain had risen on the first performance of Wagner's "Parsifal," at Baireuth, in July, 1882, my attention was suddenly attracted by a peculiar excrescence on one of the rocks in the left foreground of the stage. Gradually, as I looked, the excrescence assumed the shape of a human head, and some minutes afterward I was able to distinguish the face of Wagner himself outlined against the piece of rock scenery. At first I supposed he had ventured out too far from behind the scenes in order to observe the effect of his last music-drama upon the audience. But this supposition was dispelled by the circumstance that he rarely looked toward the auditorium. He seemed rather to be watching the singers on the stage. The face remained in view until the panoramic change of scene from the forest to the Castle of the Grail. It struck me as a curious circumstance that although I frequently looked at the face during the progress of the scene, it did not grow into any bolder relief against the rock, but remained almost as flat as though it had been painted into the scenery. Afterward I asked a number of friends in the audience if they had seen what I had. They had not; nor had others of whom they made inquiries. I was beginning to think that the appearance of Wagner's face against the rock was a freak of mirage, The Dragon's Fore-Legs. The Dragon's Fore-Legs. resulting perhaps from the positions of some of the lights behind the scenes, when I mentioned the matter to one of the principal singers in the cast. He manifested surprise, not at what I had discovered, but at my having discovered it. He then told me that weeks before the production of "Parsifal," Wagner had chalked little crosses on the stage to indicate the exact spots where he wanted the singers to stand and had also drawn lines to show the direction in which they were to move from one point to another; and had himself drilled them in every movement. At the dress rehearsals and during the performance he had watched them, except during the first scene of the first act, from behind the scenes, in order to observe whether or not they closely followed his directions. Discovering that in the scene referred to he could not command a full view of the stage from any point at which he was entirely hidden from the audience, he had selected the place where I had noticed him, because there, when the stage was lighted, [436] his complexion and the coloring of the scenery almost blended, and he considered himself safe from detection. I was much impressed at this incident. For it furnished a clue to the vast amount of labor which, unknown to the public, preceded the production of "Parsifal." If one detail in the performance had necessitated so much thought, drilling, and watchfulness, how much of these, beyond the most liberal estimate of the public, must have been developed during the long period of preparation. As I thought the matter over, the energy expended in the performance of the work dwindled into insignificance compared with that which must have been called into play while the work was preparing for production.

Some years later, amid entirely different surroundings—at the Metropolitan Opera-House, New York, during the cathedral scene in Meyerbeer's "Prophet"—I was reminded of my Baireuth experience. In the scene of "The Prophet" a brilliant pageant unfolded itself as smoothly as if it were regulated by a machine controlled in turn by the rhythm of the Coronation March; for each division of the procession came upon the stage with the first beat of the measure at which it made its appearance and kept step with the music. The stage-manager seemed to have calculated the exact interval of time which would be occupied by each division in crossing and going up the stage, for the soldiers who brought up the rear disappeared behind the scenes with the last chord of the march.

It then occurred to me that an audience sees but a small portion of a theatre. What goes on in the space above, beneath, behind, and on either side of the stage? Are not the unseen regions of a theatre more interesting perhaps than those that are seen? These questions arose in my mind during the performance of "The Prophet," as they had at Baireuth. In that instance I had been unable to follow up the subject. In the latter, however, I was more fortunate. For, through the courtesy of the managing director, I was enabled to penetrate the innermost recesses of an opera-house of the first rank, an establishment, a tour of discovery behind whose scenes reveals all the resources of the modern stage; inasmuch as one finds there not only everything pertaining to a theatre, but also the numerous and varied contrivances which have been devised for the production of the works of the modern German repertoire. This is especially true of the Metropolitan Opera-House because every article used in the performances at that house is manufactured on the premises, and because in the special line of mechanical contrivances needed for the production of Wagner's works, now so prominently before the public, Yankee ingenuity has grafted many improvements on German designs, so that our opera-house, though young in years, has in stage-craft a longer head than the old-established German opera-houses.

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 departments—musical conductor, stage-manager, scenic artist, costumer, property-master, gas-engineer, and master carpenter—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 stored—but this is taking the reader a little too far behind the footlights for the present. Before we begin our voyage of discovery it is well to box the theatrical compass.


The stage, properly speaking, is that portion of a theatre which can be seen from the auditorium, and the space on either side, behind the proscenium, utilized in shifting the "wings," as the side-scenes are called, when a scene is changing. The stage is widthwise divided into five parts. The side to the extreme left of the spectator is called the prompt-side. The prompter stands there in theatres in which there is no prompter's box. Half-way between the prompt-side and the point which marks half the width of the stage is the prompt-centre. Then there are the centre proper, and, corresponding with the prompt-centre and [437] prompt-side, the opposite-prompt-centre and the opposite-prompt-side, or, as they are always called in theatrical parlance, the o-p-centre and o-p-side. The depth of the stage is divided into "entrances" according to the number of wings. Thus the "first-prompt-entrance" is between the proscenium and the first wing on the prompt-side. Corresponding with it on the opposite side is the "first o-p-entrance." All these divisions and their appellations hold good not only of width and depth, but also of height. For instance, the prompt-centre extends from the floor of the stage to the beams far above—a height sometimes of 160 feet—to which are attached the pulleys and huge leverage wheels for running the ropes that lower and raise the drop-scenes. Plan of the Stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Plan of the Stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Everything above the proscenium arch is summed up in the term "flies," a word more frequently misused than any other theatrical term, and wrongly defined even in the principal dictionaries of the English language. The uninitiated almost invariably use this term in speaking of the strips of canvas painted to resemble sky, foliage, arches, or the ceilings of interiors suspended across the stage above the wings. These are the "borders," and form but a small portion of the flies, which include the border-lights (rows of gas-jets running across the flies and illuminating the borders), innumerable ropes, cleets, pulleys, the beams to which these last are attached, and the fly-galleries on either side, from the lowest of which the drop-scenes and borders are worked. These galleries vary in number according to the size of the house. In opera-houses of the first rank they are four in number, so that the flies are four stories high. Then, from the prompt-side across to the o-p-side, stretch, a story higher, the beams already referred [438] to. These in the aggregate have two names, according to the position of the person speaking of them. Looking upward from the floor of the stage, he would call them the gridiron; standing on them, he would speak of them as the rigging-loft. The drops in large houses are about 56 feet high, and as they are raised, not rolled up, the space from the top of the borders, on a line with the first fly-gallery, to the gridiron is about 80 feet high, giving room for the drop and 24 feet of rope. There are five ropes to each drop—the prompt, prompt-centre, centre, o-p-centre, and o-p rope. These run from the gridiron down to the first fly-gallery, where they are fastened around cleets and from where they are worked. [See p. 446.]

While the floor of the stage runs from the footlights to the rear wall of the building, the entire depth is rarely utilized, because a section extending about eight feet forward from the rear wall is reserved for the paint-room. The floor of the paint-room is a platform called the paint-bridge, which extends across the stage and can be raised and lowered between the floor of the stage and the first fly-gallery. [P. 445.] The canvas to be painted having been hung in position so that its top is level with this gallery, the work of painting begins, the bridge being lowered as occasion requires. Frequently, however, the canvas is hung on pulleys from one of the gridiron beams and gradually lowered, the bridge remaining suspended between the prompt-side of the first fly-gallery and the o-p-side, thus forming a convenient crossing from one side of the house to the other for those at work in the upper stories, who would otherwise have to descend to the stage floor, cross it, and ascend several flights of stairs on the other side. Until within about a fortnight of the production of an opera or music-drama the work of preparation goes on in the buildings on either side of the stage and flies, and is not until that seemingly late period transferred to these latter.

At the production of the work the audience, comfortably seated, watches the performance unfold itself so smoothly that it suggests no idea of preliminary labor. This is as it should be. For as an actor must cause the result of his art to seem nature itself, so the theatrical manager must cause the action and its scenic surroundings to appear the spontaneous product of the time in which the drama or opera plays. We are apt to credit only the actor with the genius of simulating nature. As a matter of fact, the principle upon which he proceeds governs every detail of a theatrical or—-to remain by the subject in hand—an operatic production. What the actor strives for, the manager, stage-manager, scene-painter, property-master, gas-engineer, master machinist, musical conductor, chorus, and principal singers are striving for. Each in his respective department is endeavoring to simulate nature. I emphasize simulate because the simulation of nature as distinguished from the actual reproduction of nature is the peculiar province of stage art. It is a fact that a real tree upon the stage looks less like a real tree from the auditorium than a tree painted upon a piece of canvas; and that with a bit of canvas and a little paint the scene-painter can, at the expense of a few dollars, produce a Persian rug looking costlier and more like the real article than would an actual Persian rug costing a thousand dollars. What in real life would be exaggeration becomes on the stage perfect simulation of nature. The actor's natural bloom would be a ghostly pallor in the glare of the foot-lights, so that he is obliged to rouge his cheeks in order that their color may look natural. And as in this case the look of nature is produced by exaggeration, so it is with everything pertaining to stage art—voice, gesture, costume, scenery, "properties," light-effects. They must all, so to speak, be rouged. A stage production, to be successful, must be prepared with this principle always in view. It can easily be traced through the work going on behind the scenes of an opera-house.

When Napoleon III., before declaring war upon Prussia, asked one of his ministers if everything were in readiness for the army to move on Berlin, the latter replied: "To the last button on the last gaiter." Unless everything pertaining to an operatic performance is in readiness to the last papier-maché shield for the last "super," there will be an operatic Sedan. The operatic host must be [439] placed on a war footing. 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," 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. For they knew the production would have to be as far as possible a materialization of a page from history. They found the Despatches of Cortez and Charnay's work on Mexico of especial value, the illustrations in the latter suggesting designs for scenery, costumes, weapons, and other properties. The scenic artist and costumer came almost at the very outset of their investigations upon stumbling-blocks in the way of "putting on" their share in the production with historical accuracy. The buildings in which part of the opera plays were a mass of granite, and their faithful reproduction would have been inconsistent with the desired spectacular effect. The costumer, who was obliged to study both the Spanish and Mexican costumes of the period, discovered that the garbs of the Mexican women were not picturesque, while those of the Mexican priests were indecent. These matters were exhaustively discussed at a cabinet meeting in the managing director's office. It was decided, so far as the unbroken mass of granite and the costumes of the Mexican priests and women were concerned, to abandon historical accuracy, and, while retaining the architectural forms, to introduce some colors and to use the costumes of a somewhat later period. Here we observe that stage art demanded a sacrifice of historical accuracy, but that the semblance of the latter was maintained as far as possible. It became necessary to "theatreize" or idealize history. This is one of the most delicate problems presented to a conscientious theatrical manager. The solution is always in the line of the principle governing all theatrical productions—simulation. I am reminded here of a passage in Ruskin's "Modern Painters" to the effect that the true artist sees nature not as it really is, but idealized through his artist-imagination, and puts upon canvas only what his artist-soul allows his memory to retain. Similarly, those concerned in placing a work like "Ferdinand Cortez" upon the stage cannot be mere photographers of history. They must idealize it.

Meanwhile the 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 image—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 [440] 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 idol was but one of four hundred and fifty-six properties which were manufactured on the premises for the production of "Ferdinand Cortez," and when it is considered that the average number of properties required for an opera or music-drama is three hundred and fifty, it will be understood that the yearly manufacture of these for an opera-house which every season adds some three works to its repertoire is an industry of great magnitude. For instance, one ton and a half of clay was needed for modelling the Mexican idol, and that property represents three months' work. It was first sketched in miniature, then "scaled"—that is, projected full size on a huge drawing-board—next modelled in clay, and then cast in plaster. The modelling and casting of properties are done in a room in the basement of the building, on the o-p-side of the stage. The idol was cast in twenty pieces. These were transferred from the modelling-room to the property workshop on the third floor of the building, prompt-side, where are also several other rooms in which properties are made, the two armories, the scenic artist's studio, and the property-master's office. In the workshop the properties are finished in papier-maché, the casts being used as moulds. They are not filled with pulp, which is one method of making papier-maché, but with layers of paper. The first layer is of white paper, moistened so that it will adapt itself to the shape of the cast. Layer after layer of brown paper is then pasted over it. The cast having been thus filled is placed in an oven heated by alcohol, and baked until the layers of paper form one coherent mass the shape of the cast. Properties thus manufactured have the desirable qualities of strength and lightness.

While the property-master and his men were fashioning the god Talepulka, the scenic artist had sketched and modelled the scenery of the opera. In order that his models may be perfect representations on a small scale of the scenery as it is actually to be, he has in his studio a fac-simile in miniature of the stage and flies, a half inch on the miniature stage representing a foot on the real one. These little scenes are made of paste-board, so as to admit easily of alterations; for frequently the scene must be changed in order that it may harmonize with the plans of the stage-manager, the designs of the costumer, and the products of the property workshop. For instance, in "Ferdinand Cortez" one scene is laid in a temple on one of the pyramids near the capitol. The stage-manager had, while the scenic artist was making his model, planned to have twenty priests swaying on the steps of the temple, and had also "plotted out" the procession which he has to bring on in this scene. [441] On inspecting the model he found that the steps were not large enough to accommodate all the priests, and also that the procession would not consume time enough in descending. From the tempo of the march and the number of bars, he had calculated the exact duration of the procession and the exact time it would take a figure marching to the rhythm of the music to pass over a given space. With this last factor as a unit the scenic artist, with scissors and paste-pot, reconstructed the steps according to the stage-manager's suggestions, at the same time taking care to leave sufficient room for the pedestal of the idol. Then there was the question of color to be considered. The costumer had made his designs and the stage-manager had arranged his groups according to the colors of the costumes. It was important that these and those of the scenery should harmonize. This matter having been adjusted the model was handed over to the scene-painters to be transferred to canvas, at the ratio of a foot to each half inch. "Fixing-up" Talepulka. "Fixing-up" Talepulka.


As the production of an opera usually involves the making of costumes for some three hundred people, the costume department of an opera-house is a dress-making and tailoring establishment on a grand scale. If several past generations of knights and ladies, burghers or peasants, of many countries were to suddenly come to life again they could there be clothed according to the fashion of their day. The costumer's numerous assistants are always busily engaged making costumes for new operas or refitting and mending old costumes. A hanging closet and a drawer are usually assigned to each opera in the repertoire, the closet for the garments of the chorus, the drawer for those of the principals. An exception is made in the case of the devils—Mephistopheles, Bertramo, etc.—who have a drawer all to themselves, presumably in order that between performances their baneful influences may not be exerted on any others than themselves. Before four o'clock of an afternoon preceding a performance the costumes for the evening are sent downstairs and hung in the chorus and ballet dressing-rooms, where hooks are assigned to each person, or placed in the artists' dressing-rooms. At night, after the performance, they are sent upstairs again. The following morning each costume is carefully inspected. If the previous night's wear has loosened a stitch it is promptly taken in; if there is a tear it is mended; if there is a button missing it is replaced before the garment is laid away.

[442]

We have now finished with the preparations for what may be called the material element in the production. While these have been progressing, the artists, the musical conductor, and the stage-manager have been solving, the more subtile elements of musical and dramatic expression, to which, after all, as in the instance of the change made in the model of the temple scene, the material element must be adjusted. It is perhaps well to lay some stress upon this point. We are apt to think that any opera can be made spectacular by a lavish expenditure of money on its mounting. Yet a purely spectacular success—a success due entirely to the gorgeousness of the material elements in the performance—is an impossibility in opera. Property Workshop. Property Workshop. The spectacular features must be inherent in the story, nay more, even in the score. Entire harmony between the material and intangible elements of the production is a condition precedent to success. Several instances can be cited in support of this position. Goldmark's "Queen of Sheba," one of the most successful of modern operas, is always mounted for spectacular effect. But these effects harmonize with the libretto and score. Only the most luxurious scenic surroundings would seem in keeping with the oriental splendor suggested by the story and the music. On the other hand, "Merlin," by the same composer, did not achieve a success. Modelling a Scene. Modelling a Scene. The libretto suggested fine scenic effects and several very dramatic, quick changes of scene—but these effects were confined to the libretto and the stage setting, for the composer had not risen to the possibilities of the story. As a result there was a great dramatic void between the scenery and the music. I also have in mind a series of operatic performances in which the scenic setting was most beautiful but the singing and acting mediocre. The beauty of the scenery, instead of [443] atoning for the mediocrity in the singing and acting, made it the more painfully apparent; and it is a fact that had the mounting of the operas been less elaborate the performances as a whole would have seemed more meritorious. These instances prove the necessity of harmonizing all the elements in an operatic production; and the more special necessity of adapting the material to the subtiler elements in the representation. This is the province of the stage-manager, who shapes the material and histrionic features of a performance. He, so to speak, edits the stage. The changes which at his suggestion the scenic artist made in the size of the steps in the scene in "Ferdinand Cortez" are an example of his editing, and of the adaptation of the material element of scenic setting to the subtiler histrionic element. Ballet Resting During Rehearsal. Ballet Resting During Rehearsal. The stage-manager is responsible for what is called the "business" of the piece, which is pretty much everything of it side the purely musical features of the performance, yet relates chiefly to the action—the grouping of the chorus and supers, the bringing on of the processions, the positions of the principals. though these last named are allowed great latitude. These matters are studied out long before the rehearsals begin. Indeed, many weeks before the chorus see a note of their music the stage-manager determines from what part of the stage each phrase is to be sung. Almost immediately upon receiving information that a new work is to be produced, he interfoliates the piano score with blank leaves, upon which he notes what is to occur simultaneously with the playing of certain bars of music on the page opposite—it may be a change of scene, a light effect, the entrance of a procession, the exit of a character, a change in the position of the chorus, the beginning of the ballet. The bar of music is the stage-manager's one, and he in turn has signals for those whom it calls into action.

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 [444] 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 scenes—the master-machinist and his subordinates—and for those who manage the light effects—the gas-engineer and the "gas-boys"—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. Waiting to Go On. Waiting to Go On. If there is a "runway," which is an elevation like the rocky ascent in the second act of "Die Walküre," or the rise of ground toward the Wartburg in "Tannhäuser," it is "built" by the stage-carpenters; and for this purpose the stage is divided into "bridges"—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 gap—but changes are rarely needed after the scene has been [445] 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 saying in opera-houses that the success of this act is "all a matter of gas." When all effects and contrivances of this kind have been thoroughly tested, the stage-manager gives the order: "Strike!" The "grips" shove off the side-scenes, the fly-men 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. On the Paint Bridge. On the Paint Bridge.

The environments of the action being now ready, other details of the production can be rehearsed upon the stage. Under the supervision of the musical conductor, principals, chorus, and orchestra have become, as the Germans say, fest—our "solid"—in their parts. The artists have been rehearsing for many weeks with the "solo répétiteur," a musician who plays the piano accompaniments for them. The time occupied by an artist in learning a part like the title rôle in "Siegfried" depends largely on the singer's aptitude and conscientiousness. Herr Alvary, for instance, though he had quivers, learned the part with a view of appearing in it in January, 1887, spent the entire following summer in adding to his knowledge of it, and even had a forge built in his room.

The chorus are supposed to know their parts by heart before the time set for the first chorus rehearsal. These rehearsals, some twenty in number, are held under the direction of the chorus-master. Then there are the ballet and some two hundred supers to drill. The ballet is regarded as having such inherent inconsistency, and as being such an unnatural excrescence upon the action, that any effort to make it historically or locally correct is regarded as useless. It is supposed to exist merely for the sake of forming a pretty adjunct to a scene. Therefore the dances and the costumes must be pretty whether they be truthful or not. For instance, when the production of "Ferdinand Cortez" was under discussion no one for a moment entertained the idea that the faces of the dancers should be stained. Of course some discrimination is had with regard to the colors of the costumes, and there are tambourines for Spanish dances, palm-leaves for those of the Orient, and bows and lances, clubs, and tomahawks, for those of savage nations.

When all know their parts, the stage is at last given up to features of the productions other than the scenery. The work is performed with scenery, light-effects, properties, chorus, ballet, and supers, but without the principals and orchestra, [446] the solo répétiteur being at the piano. There are two or three such "arrangement "rehearsals for drilling the chorus and supers in the stage "business." These rehearsals are followed by two in which the artists take part; the final test being the general rehearsal with orchestra. Then at last the work is ready for production. Working Drops and Borders from the First Fly Gallery. Working Drops and Borders from the First Fly Gallery.


Such is a résumé of the labor involved in preparing a musico-dramatic work for the stage. In three hours and a half or four hours the public, sees the result of months of activity behind the scenes. Of course only the spectacular works in the repertoire of the chief opera-houses of the day require elaborate scenic outfits. As an offset, however, the musical and histrionic features of other productions involve more careful study and rehearsal. For instance, the material features of "Tristan and Isolde" are extremely simple and its stage-management mere child's-play compared with that of the "Queen of Sheba" or "Merlin." But the work requires such profound study musically and dramatically that probably even more time would be devoted to preparing it for production than to the spectacular operas named. "The Queen of Sheba," by the way, apparently converts an opera-house into a theological seminary, for the Bible and biblical commentaries must be in everybody's hands while this work is being prepared for production. For, as the Bible is the leading authority for the material outfit of this opera, all the costumes, weapons, and other properties must be prepared from biblical descriptions elucidated by biblical commentaries. Then, too, as the Freemasons date their rites from the building of Solomon's Temple, a number of works on Freemasonry should be consulted.

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," "Aïda," "L'Africaine," or "Ferdinand Cortez." The reason is that Wagner's works call for quality instead of quantity. In many of the older operas [447] the scenic painter often reproduced mechanically actual buildings or copied parts of them into his scene. Spanish churches and palaces and bits of Italian architecture were frequently utilized. But in painting scenery for a Wagner work the artist must exercise his imagination as well as his hands. The only basis for the scenery of the "Ring des Nibelungen" is the libretto. The interior of Hunding's dwelling in the first act of "Die Walküre" must be as dramatically significant as the gestures of the artists. Such a scene, with its stern outlines and sombre coloring, is a far greater triumph of scenic art than the glittering magnificence of Solomon's Temple in the "Queen of Sheba." This point of quality versus quantity was so carefully and successfully elaborated in Mr. Apthorp's article on "Wagner and Scenic Art" (SCRIBNER'S MAGAZINE, November, 1887) that, as far as scenery is concerned, I need not follow the subject any further. But it is as true of the property-master's work as of the scenic artist's. For the former 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. Lohengrin's Swan. Lohengrin's Swan. The "Lohengrin" swan is an excellent example of this feature of Wagnerian production. Though many years have passed since "Lohengrin" was performed for the first time, the latest device for bringing on the swan in a life-like manner was introduced only three years ago. The apparatus as at present constructed is the result of the survival of the fittest, its evolution having proceeded on the lines of the principle already stated, that a mechanical property should be so constructed that it can be worked by the smallest possible number of men. Formerly the miniature figures of the swan and Lohengrin having been drawn across the background, the knight of the Holy Grail and his ornithological motor suddenly emerged from behind one of the wings directly back of the river's bank and moved half-way across the stage. There Lohengrin disembarked and sang his "Farewell, my faithful Swan!"

The latest improvement was devised in order that the swan might have the appearance of swimming down the winding stream. At the same time the apparatus was so constructed that it could be worked by only two men. The shell-like craft in which Lohengrin stands was built upon a three-wheeled truck (as shown in the illustration), the top of which was just concealed by the set-piece representing the bank of the Scheldt. Under this truck sat two men in positions which enabled them to place their feet on the floor and thus shove the truck along, the man over the front wheel [448] steering by means of a rod connected with this wheel. The swan is supported by two rods running out from the front of the truck. The use of this apparatus necessitates an arrangement of the set-pieces of water different from that formerly in vogue. It is now as shown in the diagram, the drop giving a view of the distant town and the Scheldt winding through the meadow and broadening out toward the foreground. Scene Plot of Back Part of Stage; "Lohengrin," 1st Act, and 2d Scene 3d Act. Scene Plot of Back Part of Stage; "Lohengrin," 1st Act, and 2d Scene 3d Act.

The neck of the swan is "built" around a steel spring; the body and wings are feathers and swan's-down upon wire-work. It will be remembered that while Lohengrin sings his farewell the swan gracefully inclines its head and gently spreads its wings. The former motion is produced by a thin fishing-line which is attached to the swan's beak and pulled by one of the men under the truck. The wings work by a clock-movement. In the last act of "Lohengrin" the swan sinks from view—it is transformed into Elsa's brother—and a dove flutters in front of the boat as it bears the knight homeward. This change is effected very simply. The rods upon which the swan rests work on hinges and are held in position by two lines drawn taut by one of the men under the truck, who at the proper moment slackens the line, causing the rods to drop by the weight of the swan, which sinks out of sight. The man sitting near the front wheel then shoves out a rod to the end of which a mechanical dove is attached, it and the curved end of the rod having been concealed behind the prow of Lohengrin's shell-like little craft. When "Lohengrin" was first given at Her Majesty's, London, an attempt was made to introduce this apparatus. It was duly rehearsed, but at the performance set-water strips b and c were placed too near the bank, so cramping the truck's steering room that it crashed into the bank. Campanini, who was the Lohengrin, dropped sword and shield, and facing the audience shouted: "There's stage-management for you!" "Siegfried" Bear Off Duty. "Siegfried" Bear Off Duty.

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, the [449] 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 head of this dragon is of papier-maché. The body, thirty feet long, is of thin wire covered with curled leather scales, which are bronzed and painted. This monster, in spite of its size, is worked by a boy who is the dragon's front legs. He is dressed in a suit of canvas painted the color of the dragon's hide and having curled leather scales on the trousers below the knees, his shoes being the huge clawed feet. He gets into the dragon behind its head, which conceals him from the waist up, his legs being the dragon's front legs. With his hands he opens and closes its huge mouth and shoves its eyelids over its eyes when it expires. The steam which it breathes out is supplied through an elastic pipe which, entering at the tail, runs through to the throat. The scene lasts about forty minutes and is very exhausting to the front legs. The Dragon Singing. The Dragon Singing.

In Germany the artist who sings the dragon's part is inside the hide and sings through a speaking trumpet. At the Metropolitan Opera-House the artist sits under the raised bridge upon which the dragon is placed and sings through a speaking trumpet. His music is on a stand, a stage-hand throws the light of a lamp upon it, and the solo répétiteur gives him his cues from the wings. The voice sounds as though it issued from the dragon's throat. The advantage of this arrangement is that it places in the monster a person whose attention is concentrated upon working this mechanical property in the best possible manner. The dragon when not in commission is stabled in mid-air under the paint-bridge. The day of the performance it is lowered by ropes, thoroughly groomed, and then allowed to stretch itself out upon the floor against the rear wall and [450] lie there until the end of the first act. These two illustrations of Wagnerian mechanical properties suffice to show the high order of skill required for their production. Grooming the Dragon. Grooming the Dragon.

Many properties are the joint products of the property-master and the gas-engineer, the latter executing the most delicate portions of the work. Few people have an idea of the complicated character of this functionary's duties. It is usually thought that his work is limited to lighting the chandelier in the auditorium and to turning the foot-lights and border-lights up and down. In point of fact several of the most beautiful scenes in modern musico-dramatic works depend largely for their effect upon the efficiency of the gas-engineer. Rear View of Siegfried's Forge. Rear View of Siegfried's Forge. The simplest among his many duties are performed at an apparatus which to the uninitiated seems very complex. This is the "gas-table." It consists of a table and an upright slab near the proscenium on the prompt side. With its seventy-two valves the gas-engineer controls every gas-fixture in the house. It is frequently mistaken by visitors behind the scenes for a soda-water fountain for the refreshment of the singers—not unnaturally, as it somewhat resembles that apparatus. But it is the gas-engineer's responsibility for the light-effects introduced in the course of a performance which taxes his ingenuity; and, as was the case with the scenic [451] artist's and property-master's departments, the most delicate light-problems arise in the preparations for producing Wagner's works.

In speaking of the scenic rehearsal I referred to the importance of the light-effects in the first act of "Siegfried." It depends for its picturesqueness more on the successful management of these than on any other element in the performance. To "gas" this act is an exceedingly difficult problem, for in its course a great variety of light-effects are introduced, a number of them simultaneously. For instance, no less than three different kinds of lighting come into play together every time Siegfried in the forging scene fans the fire with the bellows. In theatrical parlance the bellows "has to be practically gassed;" which means that the flaring up of the fire and its fitful gleaming upon the surrounding objects must be imitated. The manner in which these effects were produced is shown in the illustration of the rear view of the forge. This forge is a frame-work, the front, sides, and top being covered. Sunk into the top is a space for a gas-jet, a piece of split gas-pipe and a tube leading into a box immediately underneath, which is filled with lycopodium powder. A person lying under the forge takes a rubber tube, which leads from this box, into his mouth. The gas-jet and the split gas-pipe are worked and used in the same manner as were the jet and burners in the idol in "Ferdinand Cortez"—indeed, the device had been invented for "Siegfried" before the production of Spontini's opera had been decided upon. On the forge is a box painted to resemble a stone. In it are six incandescent electric lights behind a piece of red gelatine. The wire for these runs from a "pocket "in the wing. Near this is also the gas-pocket from which the tube for supplying the gas-jet and split pipe issues and runs along the stage to the hearth. The gas-jet is lighted before the curtain rises. In the wings a man with a mirror stands near an electric light. What occurs when Siegfried pulls the handle of the bellows is as follows: The Gas Table. The Gas Table.

A man in the wings turns a cock admitting the gas to the tube which feeds the split pipe. The gas when it reaches the split is ignited by the burning jet. At the same time the man under the forge blows through the tube which leads into the box of lycopodium powder. A quantity of this volatile powder is thus blown up out of the box. Coming in contact with the jet and the flames from the split pipe, it blazes up, the ignited particles at the same time floating over the hearth and thus producing the effect of gaseous flames flickering over a bed of coal or embers and running in lambent undulations from the point at which the current from the bellows fanned the fire. The man who turns on [452] the gas makes at the same time electrical connection with the box of incandescent lights, and these shining through the red gelatine throw a red glare upon Siegfried. At the same time the man with the mirror so manipulates it that the reflection of the electric light runs up and down the wing behind Siegfried. In addition to the lights in the scene of the Forging of the Sword there are several independent light-effects in this act. Among these are the glints of sunshine which play through the foliage of the forest back of Mime's dwelling, and which inspire his terrorized mind with so much dread after the Wanderer's direful prophecy. The "Rabbit Hutch" (thunder machine). The "Rabbit Hutch" (thunder machine). To produce this effect here and in the Waldweben scene of the next act, two panels of hammered white glass glazed with lead in irregular shapes (one of them arranged on a pin so that it can be slid sidewise over the other and back again), are held in front of an electric light, the sliding panel being moved rapidly to and fro. Then there are the lights thrown on Wotan, the sunlight in the forest, and the white light thrown on Siegfried just before the curtain goes down. The reader will not wonder, in view of the problems presented to the gas-engineer and the number of men employed to carry out their solution, that this functionary prepares for every act a diagram, technically known as a [453] "gas-plot," [fac-simile below] upon which is a plan of the scene, the positions of all pockets and lights, the names of the men stationed at them, an outline of their duties, and their cues. Gas-Plot. Gas-Plot.

Two light-properties in "Faust"—the fire-cup and the spark-emitting sword of Mephistopheles—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. The red glow of the hilt of the sword in the first act of "Die Walküre" is effected with a red incandescent light in a tin box, painted to represent a knot on the tree and hung on a hook just below the hilt. In the apotheosis in "Faust" the angels are seated on saddles fastened to irons which in turn are attached to slots that are raised and lowered by machinery. Behind them is a sky-blue drop, so that they appear to be floating through the air. The palm-tree in the "Queen of Sheba," which bends like a reed in the sirocco, is made of steel springs and is caused to sway by being pulled by an invisible line from behind the wings. The mirage of the Queen and her suite is produced by the stereopticon.

The stereopticon plays an important part in modern operatic productions, and many realistic effects are due to its introduction. This is notably the case with lightning, clouds, and the rainbow. Before the use of this apparatus lightning was produced by simply flashing magnesium powder in a pan. The powder is still flashed, but the image of the lightning is thrown upon the back drop or other portions of the scenery with the stereopticon. For this purpose a circular wooden frame is used, through which, near the outside edge, a circular hole about three inches in diameter has [454] been cut. This circular hole is placed opposite the lens of the stereopticon. Upon a glass disc which turns in the wooden frame various figures of lightning are painted, so that when the disc is turned the figures are focussed through the circular hole and flashed, vastly enlarged, upon the scenery. The effect is heightened by having various portions of the scenery painted on some transparent substance and flashing a light behind them, so that as the forked lightning plays over the scenery these portions seem luridly illumined by it. Cloud effects are produced in the same manner, the image being usually thrown upon gauze drops. And the sand-storm in the "Queen of Sheba" is also a stereoscopic effect. The rainbow apparatus consists of a small five-eighths of an inch broad span, composed of blue glass, steel, and a watch-spring, and two adjustable glass prisms. The stereopticon lens magnifies the span to a length of sixty feet, the image being colored by the prisms.

Lightning implies thunder. The old theatrical device for imitating the artillery of the storm was to shake a sheet of iron. This is now almost obsolete in theatrical establishments of the first rank. The so-called "rabbit-hutch" has been substituted for it. This contrivance while far more complicated is also far more effective than the sheet of iron. Its construction and the method of working it are shown in the illustration [p.452]. With one side against the wall of the third fly-gallery, prompt-side, stands a cabinet with six slanting shelves closed by doors which open sideways toward the wall. On each of these shelves are half a dozen cannon-balls, prevented from rolling out only by the closed doors. From under the cabinet runs a broad zinc-lined trough, which, at a distance of eighteen feet from the cabinet, is led through the flooring and then in two long slants to the floor below. At short intervals in the trough are little inequalities of surface. A rope places one of the two men who work the apparatus in communication with the stage. Suppose there are to be two long, loud rolls of thunder. The stage-manager pulls the rope, the man at its end on the second fly-gallery gives the word to the man at the cabinet. He throws open the doors of the lower three shelves. Eighteen cannon-balls roll thundering down the trough and through the floor to the end of the trough on the floor below. When the second signal is given the balls in the upper three shelves are freed with the same effect. If only one or two balls are used, the sound resembles the rumbling of distant thunder, while a short, terrific peal can be produced by freeing the thirty-six balls simultaneously and checking them before they pass through the floor.

The cave of the theatrical Æolus is on the first fly-gallery, prompt-side. The apparatus for producing stage-wind is about the only one of the old time devices still in use. It consists of a paddlewheel, the paddles scraping against a piece of ribbed silk tightly drawn over the upper part of the wheel. The imitation of wind thus produced is very natural, the sound increasing in volume as the wheel is turned around more rapidly.

From the gallery on which the wind machine stands, one can look down upon the stage and over the footlights and orchestra into the auditorium. There sits the audience, gazing upon a scene which to them has all the seriousness of reality. And this appearance of reality is produced by the numerous artificial devices of which we who have been behind the footlights have knowledge. Yet the next time we sit in the audience we shall be as much absorbed in the action as though we knew nothing of the means employed to dupe us. For scenery, properties, costumes, and lights have been devised with the grand theatrical principle in view—the simulation of nature. Ornament