Fearsome beasts and fairy cakes
Ahead of Falstaff and Les Troyens, our Head of Props gives a glimpse behind the scenes.
The large, light studio on the sixth floor is piled high with objects that divide into two categories: components for a vast war machine, and food – mountains of it. A half-eaten salmon on a platter jostles for space on the workbench with a domed tureen of mushrooms; rifle butts bristle out of cardboard boxes.
The studio floor is occupied by the frame of a giant horse’s head being covered with a shell of lifelike weapons (actually fibreglass) by a team of 24 people – all trying to work in a space intended for a staff of 11. In his mezzanine office above the shop floor, Head of Props, Antony Barnett, is cool as a cucumber – or manfully concealing his panic – as he talks about the schedule for two of the biggest new productions ever to come through his department at the same time, Falstaff and Les Troyens.
“I thought last year was busy enough, with Anna Nicole and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But this time we’ve had to hire more freelance specialists – laminators, mould-makers, carpenters.’ Like most of his permanent staff, Barnett himself can turn his hand to everything. ‘That’s what makes our job interesting. You have to come up with a way of making anything you’re asked for by the designer.”
Brushing past four giant chandeliers (“each bead on those strings is hand-threaded”), we inspect the 14 trolleys covered in discarded food that appear in the first act of Falstaff, where the Rabelaisian glutton lies on his (specially reinforced) giant bed. Canadian director Robert Carsen has decided that Falstaff is all about eating, so as well as the scene with 14 trolleys, he’s included a restaurant scene with diners at eight tables, each at different stages of a meal. Then there’s a gentlemen’s club, again with drink and food, an act set in a 1950s American kitchen with fully equipped cupboards, and lastly a lavish banquet. For reasons of cost and hygiene, it’s more efficient to construct the food than to produce it fresh each night. When The Royal Opera revives Falstaff in the future, it’s good to know that the profiteroles will still be good as new.
The weaponry and huge chunks of metal to be used in Les Troyens have also been made from scratch – David McVicar and his designer Es Devlin have placed the conflict in the time of the Boer War and very little existing weaponry in the props department can be reused. Before starting the weapons in the middle of last summer, Barnett calculated how many individual pieces would be needed for the two huge structures that appear in the five-act opera. It was one and a half thousand! Now they are being welded to the giant frame which, at nearly eight metres tall cannot be hauled upright until it reaches the stage. Still to be constructed is a giant tree whose branches must be removable – and fireproof – and a miniature sandstone city, eight metres across. Any more detail would give the game away!
The traditional techniques of props-making are kept alive in the Royal Opera House’s workshops – witness the leeks lovingly assembled out of paper rope, scrim and string, and the amazingly realistic lettuce leaf, beef joint or salmon side.
To create a half-eaten salmon, Barnett bought and cooked one himself. “It was delicious, but I had to leave enough to make the mould!”
He is always on the lookout for new materials and methods. Two of the most fruitful areas are the medical world and the aircraft industry. “Everything they develop for aeroplanes will be fireproof, which is good for us. We have regular visits from the fire-brigade to make sure we’re following safety regulations.”
Even an accident presented an opportunity for medical research. “I injured my arm and I was so impressed by the quick-drying plaster they used on me in hospital that I took the packet away and bought some online.” The internet is a fantastic source of props, and Barnett and his colleague Julie spend time on eBay tracking down obscure items. He has managed to find a 1930s pram for The Ring, silverware for Falstaff’s banquet, and for Liam Scarlett’s new one-act ballet he found a Victorian bed and a beautiful old chair – all of which might have taken weeks to find in individual markets.
Next Season promises to be quieter – Robert le diable, directed by Laurent Pelly, includes a jousting scene and the notorious cemetery scene, giving makers a chance to carve artistic figures on coffins. But there will be nothing as demanding as this Season’s two monster productions. How has Barnett managed to stretch his budget to create such an extraordinary number of props this Season? After all, as he points out, “Raw materials, such as metal and wood, have gone up. But as a department we’ve always made an effort to save money. We’re skip-hunters… we love making something cheap look expensive.”
That’s good news for the ROH’s finance department!
This article is taken from About the House magazine, received by the Friends of Covent Garden. Find out more about becoming a friend.