They say never work with animals on stage – but not at the Royal Opera House. Pollyanne, the donkey; Louis, the horse; and four frisky chickens are in every production of the opera Carmen – and always behave impeccably. How do these intrepid beasts pick their way through the wings, how do they manage to perform so beautifully, and, how do they avoid any messy ‘accidents’ mid aria? It is all down to the professionalism of Kay Weston and her team of animal handlers.
“Very, very few horses can be trusted on stage,” says Kay, Louis’ agent-manager, “horses are natural flight animals – and will bolt instinctively if they are frightened, but Louis is very special, he is superb, very trusting and gentle.”
Pollyanne, is also a reliable stage professional. At 22 years old, she is used to the smell of grease paint and knows all her cues. Hers is a true transformation story; she was a rescue donkey, saved by her trainer John McLaren from being sold for salami at a Salisbury Market fair, 13 years ago. She was in a terrible state, with overgrown misshapen hooves and an anxious nature. John used his love and expertise to rehabilitate her at Island Farm donkey sanctuary. Now she has her very own donkey dressing room at Covent Garden.
She and Louis have appeared in every production of Francesca Zambello’s Carmen. Neither has ever had any mishaps – bar the odd poop backstage (which Kay artfully catches in a little wicker basket). The chickens are a little harder to train.
The training process: polo mints and fruit pastilles
Kay is at pains to stress that there is no cruelty in the training process. The animals only respond to trust and kindness. On stage they stand very close to people singing at great volume, are dazzled by lights, and have to keep calm despite strident trombones, unexpected applause, gun shots and a blizzard of falling flowers. But Louis and Pollyanne take it all in their stride, barely twitching an ear.
Their trainer, Kay, also has to work with nervous stage crew and artists. “Once they pluck up the courage to feed Louis a polo mint, they’re in love with him,” she says. Rob Barham, the Opera House’s head armourer, is a particular favourite and always brings the animals a treat: carrots, apples and fruit pastilles. “Louis is a lovable rascal,” says Rob, “nothing fazes him”.
For the current production of Carmen, Louis’ owner Samantha Jones prepared the Greek baritone Aris Argiris for his role as Escamillo at her Uxbridge yard. She taught Argiris how to look his best on Louis, how to ride Spanish style, like a matador, with a straight back. Everyone watched in awe (including the waiting taxi-driver) as he rode around the enclosure, singing out Toreador at full belt.
Backstage call: the whiff of hoof oil
For every production of Carmen, Kay travels up to London from Oxfordshire with the animals and their handlers. They park their horse boxes on Floral Street, and bring the animals into the enormous “giraffe lift” on Bow street. The animals then relax backstage in their own VIP area which is kept cool and quiet. Their demands are modest: a little straw, some polo mints, apples and buckets of water.
Hair and makeup consist of a thorough groom, some tail-plaiting, and a careful application of hoof oil. Then a blacksmith fits rubber stage shoes to prevent slipping on stage, and the animals don their costumes.
At the five-minute call, Kay and the animals’ owners and handlers, all in costume, accompany the animals to the wings. Their entrances are meticulously rehearsed and the animals know their cues (they listen to tapes of Bizet’s Carmen back on the farm). On stage the handlers keep close to the animals and mingle with crowd members.
But however well rehearsed, there could always be some unexpected event, so Kay keeps a few mints to hand, to pre-empt any loud snorts or brays. Pollyanne famously made the headlines in a 1997 production of Pagliacci, letting out a loud ‘hee-haw’ just as Angela Gheorghiu launched into a love duet. Louis occasionally stamps his hoof dead on the beat at the end of a particularly rousing swell of the orchestra. But this is just fluke, says Kay, “he’s probably just got an itchy leg”.
At the end of the night, all the animals are led back across the stage (they cannot exit stage left). They take off their stage shoes and costumes, and wend their way home on the M4 back to Oxfordshire. Tired, but elated, perhaps they are still remembering the sound of the applause?
F A C T F I L E
Louis (short for Waterloo) is a 15-year-old black gelding Fresian, standing 16.2 hands, noted for his majestic looks. Fresians are similar in size to a light draft horse but very graceful and nimble for their size. Louis has been trained from infancy by his owner Samantha Jones of Hilton Horses with help from her sister Sharon Rafferty. He has been trained to rear on command, and will cross his front legs as if to bow. He also loves jousting and trick riding.
He knows and loves Bizet’s score to Carmen, which is played to him on tape before performances. He pricks up his ears at his cue, the Toreador song.
Pollyanne is a 22-year-old grey mare donkey standing at 10.3 hands. She was rescued from Salisbury Market (Horse Sales) in March 1997 by John McLaren of Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary. She is now in fine condition and a very good riding donkey for disabled children who visit the sanctuary for donkey rides. She regularly attends rallies, fetes and carnivals.
Kay Weston’s Animal Ambassadors
Kay Weston is an animal agent, her company Animal Ambassadors supplies and train animals for TV commercials, dramas, films, advertising campaigns and photography.