Australian Opera Carmen
‘JAMIESON’, ‘THE BRAES DRUMMER’ AND ‘KIKO’ GO TO THE OPERA
In early 2008 our business, like most in the equestrian fraternity, had been quite due to the Equine Influenza hitting our area. Equitana had been cancelled and all our horses were just sitting around putting on weight.
All was looking quiet for Christmas, when Steve received a phone call from the Producer of the Australian Opera ‘Carmen’. Steve has developed a reputation world wide for training horses to perform live in theatre and major events such as the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony and more recently the Opening Ceremony of the Asian Games held in Doha, where Steve trained a horse to carry the Prince of Qatar up a very narrow and incredibly steep 60 meter ramp to the roof of the stadium in order to light the cauldron for the Opening of the 15th Asian Games.
The producer of ‘Carmen’ wanted to know if Steve could provide a horse to be ridden on stage in the Australian Opera’s new production of “Carmen”. This would be the first time horses had performed in the Sydney Opera house and the thought of performing with horses in the Opera was an exciting challenge and a great opportunity.
As usual the producers thought they would be able to get horses that were ready to go into a performance at a moments notice. Unfortunately it wasn’t as easy as they had imagined, the horses would need to be prepped for their role. Their ‘on stage’ role meant that they needed to be able to handle such things as the huge walls, which make up part of the set, moving toward and around them as sets changed during the show. They would be required to be able to stand still and relax whilst 30 performers are singing, dancing, stamping and vibrating tambourines all around them. All this happens on a crowded stage where there is little room for mistakes. At one stage Drummer enters with Carmen doubling sideways on his rump to a barrage of confetti, streamers and lights in his face as the full orchestra is performing below him.
The English director, Denni Sayers, refers to our horses as “her boys” and is extremely happy with their ‘on stage’ performance skills. Having had to cut certain aspects from the London show to accommodate the horses, Denni was ecstatic with the fact that our horses could handle the pressure of the uncut show.
Another interesting aspect of the show for the horses is the backstage props lift, which carries them up 20 metres to the back of the stage, where they stay during the show. The lift is a platform with no sides and only 3meteres wide, but after a few nervous runs the horses became quite comfortable with their new mode of transport. Steve had had experience with this type of thing in preparing horses for a similar type of lift used to bring the ‘hero horse’ up from under the ground at the Opening Ceremony of the Asian games.
Once ‘on stage’, all we had to worry about was the slippery timber floor which makes an obvious and unsettling ‘drumming’ sound when the horses walk on it . To help relax the horses and make them feel ‘right at home’, we add to this an array of moving lights, shadows, smoke machines and a cast and crew with no horse experience. Just the things you want to relax your horse!!
All this and time was running out, opening night was 24th January, 2008 .
In early January, Drummer and Jamieson were pulled in from the paddock where they had been resting in ‘EI’ mode for three months. We are sure Drummer was really excited, as ever since he was the ‘colt from Old Regret’ in David Atkins ’, ‘Man from Snowy River arena spectacular’ that toured Australia, he has been living the celebrity dream, believing he really was the ‘colt’ and looking forward to being on centre stage again and hearing the applause.
Initially, we needed to find out how the stars of Carmen would handle the horses, so two days after Christmas they spent the afternoon getting to know Jamieson and Drummer. Kirsten Chivaz plays ‘Carmen’, she is famous for performing the role of ‘Carmen’ on stages across America , but has never ridden a horse in any of these productions.
In the Sydney production she rides behind Steve sitting sideways in a dress with a huge bussel, making sitting on a horse very difficult.
Michael “Todd” Simpson plays the role of ‘Escamillo’. Todd had ridden briefly as a young boy in the United States . He was excited about the opportunity of riding our Australian Stock horses in the Opera and rose to the challenge, quickly learning the finesse of the aids and how relaxed the rider needs to be to communicate with his horse under pressure. Todd learned rapidly with the realization that one false move could mean that you and your horse were down in the pit with the Orchestra! Todd has even been seen back stage with the bucket and scoop tending to the needs of his mount – not bad for a superstar!
Unfortunately, Todd was only in Australia for part of the Opera and when he returned to the United States he was replaced by an Australian Baritone, Joshua Bloom, who has never ridden before. Steve had worked with Josh to improve his riding skills before he was to appear on stage in late February. Josh was a bit nervous for the first few shows, but fortunately the horses had enough performances under their girths by this time to make them feel right at home on stage which allowed Josh to concentrate on what he does best, which is singing!
The original concept was for one horse to do the show and the other to be the back-up in case of a problem, but once we got into full production it was decided to use both horses. Todd, who played Escamillio, felt very comfortable on Jamieson whilst Kirsten preferred to ride Drummer. His wider hip and his calmness under pressure helped her relax and made it easier for her to sit sideways.
At the end of each performance; as the cast take their curtain call, Drummer joins the Principles in a first for Opera, bowing on centre stage which brings thunderous applause from the audience.
Everyone involved with the production has fallen in love with Jamieson, Drummer and Kiko when they are back stage it is standing room only. Similarly, on the forecourt of the Opera house the audience gathers before and after the show to both admire and praise the horses for their amazing tolerance and behavior on stage.
Following the summer season in Sydney, Jamieson, Drummer, Kiko and Steve will travel to Melbourne for the autumn season production of Carmen.
Whilst there are both local and overseas visitors there is always one common question, – “what breed are they?”
About the Story: Seville -. Soldiers congregate outside the cigarette factory. Carmen throws a rose at Don José’s feet. He is smitten. His girlfriend Micaëla arrives bringing a kiss from José’s mother, and a letter from her recommending Micaëla as a suitable wife. There is a sudden ruckus at the factory: Carmen has cut another worker’s face. Don José arrests her, but, left alone with her, his resistance to her charms gradually decreases, until he agrees to help her escape. Later, the toreador Escamillo comes to the tavern of Carmen’s friend Lilias Pastia, complete with his swaggering aria, and he and Carmen flirt. Carmen’s gypsy friends tell her of their plans for a smuggling expedition. They urge her to recruit her lover. Opportunely, José arrives at this moment. He joins Carmen and her band. Carmen and her friends Mercédès and Frasquita tell fortunes with cards. She reads death for herself and for Don José, with whom she has grown bored. Micaëla finds José and tells him that his mother is dying. He leaves with her. Escamillo and Carmen become lovers. Looking radiant, she arrives with Escamillo at the bullring in Seville . Left alone with Carmen outside the arena, José implores her to leave with him, but she says she no longer loves him and would rather die than give up her freedom. José stabs her, just as the cheers hailing Escamillo’s victory can be heard from the bullring. (reproduced from Opera Australia website)