14 May 2015 at 4.34pm | Comment on this article
Did you know that the Royal Opera House has its very own armoury? It's not that we're planning on invading any neighbouring West End theatres (the odd transfer from the Linbury aside), but such is the demand for weaponry in opera and ballet productions featuring revolutions, swashbuckling and crimes of passion, that a full-time team is needed to look after our arsenal of stage firearms, swords, chainmail and spears.
Assistant Head Armourer Zoe Phillips recently spoke to BBC Radio 4's Midweek about what the job requires.
'We make a variety of items, depending on what's required', Zoe told presenter Libby Purves. 'We have some knives that resemble spoons because they're so blunt and safe that they don't look very much like a knife anymore... and we have knifes that are sharp. We might be asked to make a knife that is sharp enough to cut an apple but not cut someone's hand, which is a slightly difficult brief to fulfil!'
Zoe is currently working on Damiano Michieletto's new Royal Opera production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell and has the task of making the crossbow that will shoot the famed apple from the head of the lead character's son:
'It's quite a big show for us as we have a lot of armory to provide. We're making a trick crossbow but the brief has changed slightly so I'm in the process of making alternative versions because the creative team require it to do different things to the original brief. I believe an actor will be using the crossbow. It does need to work night after night, and quite safely too! I'm working to provide two options and we'll see which works better on stage.'
So how do you find yourself working in an armoury, making and maintaining weapons for some of the world's top opera singers and ballet dancers?
'When I was much younger, I wanted to be an artist, then a puppeteer - I wanted to go and work for Jim Henson', Zoe said. 'That didn't quite work out but I continued my pursuit as a maker and did a foundation course, and then a degree at Wimbledon College of Art. I then worked as a freelancer in film and theatre and finally got to the opera house as the laborer in the carpentry shop at the Royal Opera House. I wanted to be in that world and I wanted to move up. Fortunately I've had lots of opportunity to do that.'
Safety is paramount and something that the Armoury team takes very seriously, training everyone who uses a weapon and ensuring that they're fully briefed before they take to the stage:
'We have quite strict protocol that at the start of a rehearsal period, we will give a complete safety briefing, and complete safety training which is a longer process and then before every performer, we'll either go to dressing rooms or see the performer when it's convenient on the side-stage to run over a safety reminder. And if we haven't gone through that stage, we don't give them a weapon.'
So focused on safety is the team that the only mishap that tends to arise is a mis-firing gun, but the team is on hand to ensure that silence doesn't lead to an anticlimax at the critical moment:
'We will stand by with a cover shot, so if a gun doesn't go off on the side of the stage we're in the wings waiting to pull the trigger on our own one. The adrenaline is quite intense at that point!'
Guillaume Tell runs 29 June–17 July 2015.
General booking opens on 31 March. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 5 July 2015. Find your nearest cinema.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hélène and Jean Peters and David Hancock.