Backstage on the Metropolitan Opera, earlier than the curtain rose on Monday on a revival of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” a donkey in a pink jester’s hat waited patiently for her cue.
This was Wanda, a 15-year-old, with good-looking brown stripes operating down her again and onto her tail. Making her Met debut this season, Wanda performs a short however notable function on this romantic, tragic opera: In the course of the grand Café Momus scene, she pulls a brightly coloured cart stuffed with toys, which the peddler Parpignol arms out to excited kids.
In Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish manufacturing, the second is an awe-inspiring spectacle, evoking the Latin Quarter in Paris and bustling with some 250 individuals onstage — and a donkey and a horse, who pulls a hansom cab onstage for a dramatic entrance.
Wanda has large hooves to fill. For 16 seasons, the function was performed by the identical donkey, Sir Gabriel, who was adored by solid members and backstage crew. “He was an enormous presence on the Met, in ‘Barber of Seville,’ in ‘Bohème’; he was actually beloved,” mentioned Nancy Novograd, who runs All Tame Animals, the animal company that works with the Met. (The company has additionally represented hissing cockroaches and lion cubs, amongst others, for movie, style, theater and extra.)
Sir Gabriel retired from opera this yr to a farm that Novograd owns in Maryland. This isn’t a darkish euphemism: He has begun a second act as a companion donkey to a mare who misplaced her accomplice at a farm down the street. At first, the 2 had been aloof towards one another, standing on both facet of the paddock, however after a number of months they edged nearer and nearer, till they lastly bonded.
And so Wanda has taken up the mantle in “La Bohème.” She is in her prime — donkeys usually dwell to be 30 to 35 — and has ready for this second with all kinds of roles. She has been in a petting zoo and as soon as stood outdoors a bar to draw clients. She has starred in commercials. And he or she is a recurring star of companies on Palm Sunday on the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, because the donkey that Jesus rides into Jerusalem. This season, although, was her first time on the Met stage — and Novograd mentioned, to date, so good.
What makes for a superb opera donkey? It’s not so completely different from what makes for any good opera star. “In relation to hoofed animals like horses and donkeys, you need one who’s daring fairly than quiet, which typically surprises individuals,” Novograd mentioned. “There’s loads happening which may appear horrifying or harmful, and in the event that they’re too timid that may overwhelm them. Confidence is crucial factor, whether or not it’s a horse or a donkey or a canine.”
Each night time of the “Bohème” run, Wanda is available in a trailer both from Wallkill, N.Y., or the Bronx, the place she stays when she has a gradual gig within the metropolis. Novograd and her handlers take Wanda out of her trailer, and head to one thing referred to as “the horse door,” a big entrance on the road that leads into the labyrinth of hallways within the Met, previous costumes in storage, lockers for the solid and stagehands, items of the set, and different miscellany backstage. On opening night time, Novograd and three males — carrying buckets and shovels in case of an accident — led Wanda and her equine co-star Lord, a darkish chestnut horse, to their ready place backstage, beside Wanda’s colourful cart.
Lord pulls a hansom cab, carrying the character Musetta and her growing old, rich lover into Café Momus, the place they meet Mimì, Rodolfo, and Musetta’s former flame Marcello. It’s a dramatic entrance, one which Lord, a 19-year-old former racehorse, has made for years. (He additionally has quite a few different notable roles, together with recurring appearances on the tv present “The Gilded Age,” and was made up as a zebra in “The Best Showman.”) John Allegra, his proprietor and onstage handler, mentioned, “Anybody, actually, may drive this horse.”
Allegra owns 45 horses on a farm in Connecticut, lots of whom are frequent performers. He had two in a latest revival of “Aida,” whose Triumphal Scene is likely one of the most animal-centric in opera. “When the horses hear these horns,” Allegra mentioned. “They’re prepared.”
Backstage at “Bohème,” as Act I acquired underway, and snatches of arias drifted backstage, the animals and their handlers slowly acquired their costumes collectively. Allegra placed on his hat and 19th-century interval coat for a stroll throughout the stage. Martyn Blackmore, who was main Wanda, additionally acquired into costume. Gregory Warren, who performs Parpignol, appeared in his clown-like make-up and examined out the toys in Wanda’s cart, to see which had been hooked up and which weren’t, so he may distribute them to the kids onstage.
“Animals and youngsters,” Warren mentioned. “Having them onstage actually adjustments issues up. That’s the most effective issues about dwell efficiency, that it adjustments each night time.”
Wanda’s hat was placed on, as was a colourful material, blue and gold with purple fringe, that lined her again. Like an skilled starlet, she was unfazed by all of the adjusting and fussing. Lord nibbled at her hat, and sometimes the 2 nuzzled. However Wanda largely stared into house, her massive donkey eyes swiveling.
Then everybody sprang into motion. “Donkey coming down,” somebody yelled, urging individuals to get out of the best way, because the animals had been led into the wings. A crew of stagehands and handlers hooked up Lord’s hansom cab, and Musetta and her paramour loaded into it, with their prop buying packages. A cabby stood on high with a whip, and Allegra, dignified in his interval gown, stood at his facet.
The cue lastly got here, and Wanda led the best way out of the wings. She emerged into the commotion of music and crowds, Parpignol peddling his wares, and Mimì and Rodolfo falling in love towards the backdrop of the wild, colourful show. It was Wanda’s fleeting second within the lights.
Simply as rapidly, she ambled throughout the stage into the wings on the opposite facet, the place she was unclipped, undressed, unharnessed, able to make her strategy to Wallkill, earlier than she does all of it once more on Friday.
However first: time outdoors, and hay.
“After the present,” Novograd mentioned, “she all the time will get treats.”