Horse Sense—ARThound talks with San Francisco Opera’s Daniel Knapp about “Patches,” the equine star of “The Trojans,” at War Memorial Opera House through July 1, 2015
Horses are mythic. There’s none more colossal or more steeped in legend than the Trojan horse, a prize so glorious that it could not be left standing outside Troy’s gates but once brought inside, would destroy all those in power. As San Francisco Opera opens its summer season with six performances of Berlioz’s glorious musical epic, The Trojans, I spoke with David Knapp, the company’s new production manager, about “Patches,” its equine star. The 23-foot-tall Trojan horse, which is on stage for most of the 5+ hour opera, has been nicknamed “Patches” by SFO because it’s literally pieced together from scraps and functions much like a mechanized puppet, with carpenters and acrobats inside it manipulating it. Back after a 47 year hiatus, it took over a decade of planning to bring the $6 million production to San Francisco Opera (SFO). It’s staged by Sir David McVicar, the acclaimed Scottish director, and is a coproduction of SFO, Royal Opera House, Teatro alla Scala, and Vienna State Opera. Since the opera opened to a sold-out house on June 6, it has drawn universal praise from critics and audience alike. Long before the opera opened though, Patches was a big draw with SFO staff and special visitors who came back stage in droves to pose for photos with the humongous but intricately constructed artwork. Here is my conversation with Knapp about this horse—
What’s so special about this giant horse that has travelled here from Europe.
Daniel Knapp: It’s magnificent—7 meters (approximately 23 feet) tall and is not only a sculpture that is scenic art but it’s also a puppet to a certain extent. It’s constructed of steel and fiberglass and doesn’t weigh too much because it’s mainly fiberglass. It has a gaf piston in it which allows for the rocking of the head and basic movements and that’s very exciting. When it’s first introduced, you get the impression that it’s very tall, frightening. You only see the upper part of the head and wonder where’s it coming from and what does the whole thing look like and is it really a horse? There are 2 carpenters and 3 acrobats inside, moving and manipulating the horse and they’ve been here practicing since the rehearsal period began.
Who gets credit for artistic design of the horse?
Daniel Knapp: It’s Es Devlin, a British designer who’s involved with all the top rock and roll shows—U2 tour, Take That tours, Miley Cyrus—and with opera and theatre. She designed the closing ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games. She runs an office with a multitude of assistants and she has just opened an office in Brazil. The conception for the horse came from the workshops of the Royal Opera House and she worked with them to refine it, from the model to the life-scale sculpture we call “Patches” because it’s patched together.
Has Devlin created any other animals that we might recognize?
Daniel Knapp: She’s done all the set and scenic design on this opera but I’m not aware that’s she done another horse. For one of the last Take That tours, she did a big man, that was more than 40 feet tall, that stood up over the course of the concert, going from crouching to standing in the middle of the audience. (Take That is a leading British pop group that formed in 1990 and currently consists of musicians Gary Barlow, Howard Donald and Mark Owen)
(Es Devlin designed the giant walking elephant for Take That’s Circus Live Tour 2009. The 26 foot tall elephant had translucent skin made light-weight chain mail and was constructed by Mark Mason of Asylum Models. It was operated by 13 puppeteers inside the skins and another four at ground level who controlled the head, trunk and legs. It had rods that moved the ears and its tail was an inverted acrobat wearing a helmet with hair extensions. (To read about and see the elephant, click here.)
This version of Troyens is set, more or less, at the time of its composition, in the 1850s, Second Empire France. How did that influence the actual conception for the horse that looks like a machine horse?
Daniel Knapp: Everything that you will see that is part of the horse could have been made at that time or could predate that time. The horse is pieced together from what appear to be rifles, screwdrivers, all sorts of tools and scrap materials like keys…it’s actually mostly fiberglass, a piecemeal puzzle that once put together appears as this great horse.
Carbon footprint aside, what’s entailed in getting something of this magnitude to San Francisco? And then assembling it?
Daniel Knapp: We always use steam ship companies because air is too expensive. It was shipped in 16 containers (40 foot high cube containers). Your entire household could fit in 1 of these containers, or, if you’ve got an extensive household you might need 1.5 containers. It all arrived in pieces in a very organized matchbox system. A team form the Royal Opera House came over to help with the assembly because they are the originators. Actually, our staff went to La Scala last year and watched this process and got a feel for what it takes to put on this production. With this run, we did all of that assembly in 3.5 days; in Milan, they weren’t as quick as we were. We didn’t have the time or money to allow for more time to do it.
How many scenes does Patches appear in?
Daniel Knapp: He appears in a multitude of scenes but I’m not going to give away any of the excitement. He’s on stage for a fair while and, when he’s not hiding in the back, sometimes he’s looming in the background and sometimes he’s hidden by a blackout curtain.
How mobile is the horse and how does it move around the stage? I heard this entails acrobats and carpenters.
Daniel Knapp: Yes, that’s exactly what it takes. We have few carpenters and acrobats around and in it, moving it. It’s on wheels, on a huge A stand. If you think of a child’s swing on the playground and think of it for giants, that’s what the internal structure of the horse is. It moves around on wheels that are on tracks just like a train. The tracks are a part of the original design and actually travel with the production. We had to cover our stage floor with another floor and that entailed adding about 1 inch to our stage to ensure that the weight is distributed evenly so that we don’t damage our rather old stage floor. We also had to re-enforce some of the stage structure underneath to make sure that we don’t suddenly fall in the basement. The horse might be relatively light but the trappings—the drum trucks, the big scenery elements for Troy and Carthage—all together, those weigh 32 tons.
Anything tricky about coordinating the movement of the horse to the music and the singers? Do any of the lead singers have any direct interaction with the horse?
Daniel Knapp: As we know from the Trojan story, the horse is sort of a separate entity. The lead singers certainly react to it but they don’t interact with it directly. The horse’s movement on stage is cued like everything else—people execute what they have rehearsed and there’s nothing complicated about that. These are professionals who are used to working to cues from the stage manager, such as “horse go upstage.” We do this in rehearsal and there’s always a review afterwards to make sure that we have hit our marks. Sometimes, the director might want to change the speed but it’s not complicated. There’s one boss and that’s the director but on stage, it’s the stage manager who calls out when and where.
This is a fiery horse—how is the fire created and will there be accompanying liquid nitrogen and steam, like in the Ring?
Daniel Knapp: The horse itself doesn’t breathe fire but its mane burns, which is a very impressive sight. In the original version, in London, they had the horse smoke but due to restrictions over here, the director distanced himself from that when he did the revival in Milan. That’s what I said about cooking the meal for the third or fourth time, you’ve left out the ginger but added something else. Over here, steam and liquid nitrogen are our only possibilities to create atmosphere due to the CVA restrictions we work under as collaborating artists.
Do you have much freedom in interpretation of this opera and how the horse is used here in San Francisco?
Daniel Knapp: It’s like your last cooking experience when you invite people over for dinner and you remember that, three years ago, you did this fantastic meal and you want to do the same meal again. Will do it exactly the same way? No—that’s exactly the same situation with a revival or co-production. We are not the conceivers, David McVicar or Ses Devlin, we are realizing their artistic vision. We had Leah Hausman, the co-director from London, here, who is a dance and movement director and coach, and other of McVicar’s associates here. We could never do this just ourselves because then it’s not in the original spirit. People in the house who were part of the original creation production do feel differently than people who have just joined a few years later and we needed them.
How appropriate is the War Memorial Opera House stage for a horse of this weight and magnitude? Isn’t SF much smaller than the Royal Opera House or La Scala?
Daniel Knapp: It’s not only the horse but it’s also the enormous drum trucks which support Carthage and Troy. Carthage is an entire terracotta kingdom and you’ll be blown away by it, as much as by the horse. You’ve also got the chorus, the singers, dancers, acrobats—over 130 on stage.
Stage wise, we are a little smaller but, auditorium wise, we are bigger than all the European houses. We compare ourselves to the size of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, which has the biggest modern stage (together with the Opéra Bastille in Paris) in Europe. Here in the US, you have this curiosum or wonderful paradox because sometimes there are stages like ours that originally did not have a backstage or a real up stage storage area but only a stage area. Actually, up until 45 years ago, all our sets were built right on stage. Our auditorium is huge compared to all the European houses. With 3,146 seats, we are bigger than all other houses but now our stage is smaller, so over the next 20 years there will probably be some developments.
Any funny stories related to Patches so far?
Daniel Knapp: Just people excited to have their picture taken with Patches. It’s like we are a part of Disney World here; even the staff is coming down to the stage to have their picture taken.
What’s your favorite scene in Trojans?
Daniel Knapp: It’s the whole opera, the whole thing, because once it’s done because it’s such a complex and huge show that I can’t focus on one thing but rather all the contributing moments.
How are adjusting to your new position here? What are your responsibilities?
Daniel Knapp: I’m adjusting great; it’s full of surprises in a good and interesting way. The whole scope of coming to a new country and a new working environment offers a multitude of perspectives. It’s been very welcoming so far and very intense, so it feels a lot more like I’ve been here a year and half rather than just a few months.
I’m responsible for overseeing all the productions at SFO— all the scenic elements, costume shops, sound and technical departments and all the labor that’s involved, which is all the talent on the stage plus the electricians and all the support staff…so, it’s quite a scope. I’ve met a lot of people who have a certain sense of responsibility for this company, who identify with it and who have been here much longer than me. They’ve introduced me to the company culture and what necessary changes could be made and how we can achieve those as a team over the next 3, 5, 15, or however many, years to stay up with the world class opera companies.
With “Troyens” up first, followed by the world premiere of “Two Women,” it’s kind of a trial by fire for you. What’s the most demanding part of your job right now?
Daniel Knapp: I’m a little in both fire and water trials right now. I’m from a country that has plenty of drinking water and lakes on our doorstep and coming to Northern CA, and being in the middle of a drought, is also a big trial. To be able to make use of all the technology and intellectual capital that surrounds us here and to engage the techies is another exciting challenge for our opera company. With respect to the work load, at the Bregenzer Festival in Austria, I was always overseeing two productions; last summer it was three productions, one of which was The Magic Flute on the floating stage. I was also very involved with the pre-production of Turandot that will premiere on July 22. So that’s heavy experience with large-scale productions on the lake, in the open air, and it’s a bit of a different scale. We had many international co-productions as well with companies in Europe and the US, so I am quite used to doing multiple wedding dances at the same time. That was exciting but the requirements of a concentrated festival versus a company that is doing performances year-round are different. What I love here is that we have an interwoven schedule so that the three monumental productions— The Trojans, the world premiere of Two Woman and the revival of the classic, Figaro, in an adapted version, Figaro, will all be able to fit on stage. That was a lot to step into.
How did you prepare for this opera? Did you do extensive reading or do you mainly execute and manage?
Daniel Knapp: My learning process is the interaction with the artists, finding out what their real concerns are and looking behind the scenes. I’m not the guy who tries to be more prepared than the director and I don’t do the full research of the director or designers. However, when I have questions about why something is set-up a certain way and why something can’t be done, I get very involved. I always question creative teams about why they would want to emphasize something or not. I need to understand where they are coming from so that we can get the most from their art on stage. The great thing about my job is that, if I do it correctly, you don’t notice that I am there.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming fall season?
Daniel Knapp: Meistersinger of course! That’s because it’s another one of those monster shows with great music, a great designer, great artists…so that’s very nice. I’m also excited about Usher (Fall of the House of Usher) which is so theatrical. The great thing is that my former boss, David Pountney, is the director of that show, so I get to meet him under different circumstances, to collaborate and to actually tell him “no.”
Details: There are three remaining performance of The Trojans—Saturday, June 20, 2105, 6PM; Thursday, June 25, 6PM and Wednesday, July 1, 6PM. Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat. The June 25th and July 1st performance feature OperavVision, HD video projection screens in the Balcony level. For information about the SFO’s Summer 2015 Season, click here.
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