A dog will always upstage you in an opera
BBC NGA artist Robin Tritschler on the perils of working with children and animals
'Never work with children or animals’ - W.C. Fields
I have been fortunate enough to have occasionally worked with children or animals on stage. I understand why it is a daunting ordeal for some performers, but the unpredictable possibilities are an aspect of live theatre which I find simultaneously thrilling and despairing. In these incidents you can be sure of two things: at some point in the process there will be a near catastrophe and you are certain to be upstaged in every scene. The most you can hope for is to come away with a good dinner party anecdote.
Working with children is always a refreshing, exciting, surprising experience. They turn up full of energy and enthusiasm, bounding around the stage without the ritual and superstitious baggage which often plagues their seniors. I once watched a boy eat ice cream moments before walking on stage to sing. If I did that, any hope of singing would vanish It would be like smashing a block of ice with a hammer; it makes a rather unpleasant noise and shatters.
On the opera stage the regular animal star is, of course, a dog. I’d prefer to work alongside children any day. At the curtain call of Mozart's Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, our canine co-star, who convincingly played an airport sniffer dog during the show, stepped forward. She should have remained still, but chose this moment of applause to place one paw over the other, tilt her head and bow. That night she was the star! Nothing the singers had done earlier could eclipse that moment of showboating so we did the only thing left for us, we cheered her too.
After dogs, I suppose donkeys and horses appear most frequently. One of these animals is tough enough to handle so you can only imagine my trepidation when, during the premiere production of Roger Waters’s Ca Ira in Poland, I shared the stage with several great danes and four white horses.
So given it is not an everyday occurrence, it was quite strange this summer to do back to back productions involving children or animals; Britten’s Turn of the Screw at Holland Park and Andriessen’s De Materie for the Ruhrtriennale Festival.
In the Britten opera I played a schoolmaster with eight young schoolboys under his charge. The young actors were absolutely fantastic. The director never needed to ask them to ‘give more’, rather the opposite. The challenge was to rein in their exaggerated stretches and yawns, their playful chases and cheeky winks into the audience. The first rehearsals were hamtastic! While very professional on stage, backstage the boys returned to being nine year olds. The chaperone, costume girls and I all acted as disciplinarians, councellors, shoelace monitors, encouragers, confectioners; any role needed to maintain their performance and help them get through the dreaded backstage boredom. On the opening night, just as I was readying myself for my first entrance, I felt a tug on my sleeve. One of the boys whispered ‘I’m nervous’. To be honest, he was not alone. Somehow I managed to explain that everyone feels that way and the trick is to use the nerves to our advantage, put their energy into our performance. It was not the best time for me to give my Henry V, feeling nervous about walking onto the stage myself, but he took my words in complete faith and gave a wonderful performance.
In the production of De Materie there were more animals than I have ever seen on stage before. During act four 140 mature sheep slowly appeared at the back of the stage (pictured above). It sounds like a lot, but as the stage was 150x40 meters (an old steel factory!), there was plenty of space to fill. In the dim light, accompanied by extraordinary music, the herd wandered the stage in a mesmerising fashion; constantly in motion like a whirlpool gravitating toward its own centre. My eyes and ears found it difficult to believe the incredible scene. However the reality was confirmed by my nose. Sheep get nervous too, and don’t handle it nearly as well as schoolboys!
Production photo: Klaus Grunberg