ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Meet Drogen, the unflappable equine star of SF Opera’s “Carmen”—he’s from Penngrove and is a rare Gyspy Vanner

Drogen, a 13 year-old Gypsy Vanner gelding owned by Eugene Power, of Novato, and boarded at Caryn and Howard Hoeflein’s Sky High Ranch in Penngrove.  Drogen steals the show in Carmen, which opened SF Opera’s summer season on June 5 and runs through June 29.  Photo: Hannah Beebe

There’s nothing like an extra-large, adorable animal on stage to get an audience oohing and ahhing and that’s exactly how Drogen, a 13-year-old horse from Penngrove, has become the most talked about star of SF Opera’s Carmen.  Of course, the singers are wonderful and Bizet’s familiar music is as enthralling as ever but the chatter has been all about the bullfighter Escamillo’s horse, which bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen rides on stage for his rousing Act II Toreador aria, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre.”  Drogen makes another brief appearance in Act IV, the final moments of the opera, when he dramatically carries in the heroine Carmen, soprano J’Nai Bridges, and she dismounts into Escamillo’s arms.

I was delighted to learn that Drogen is stabled in Penngrove, at Sky High Ranch, just a few miles from my country home.  His handler, Caryn Hoeflein of Sky High Ranch, appears on stage as an extra in the opera and works with Drogen to ensure all goes as planned for his two stage appearances.

Drogen is a 13-year old Gypsy Vanner—a rare and gorgeous breed of draft horse first bred in Europe to pull Romani (gypsy) caravans in the UK, and introduced into the US by an enamored Florida couple, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, in 1996.  Gypsy Vanners are captivating in motion because of their flowing feathers, the thick, long silky hair that starts at roughly the cannon bone of the leg and grows down and completely around the hoof.  Gypsy Vanners have always been bred for temperament too, as they needed to be able to pull heavy wagons and work with a family.  At nearly 16 hands high, Drogen is a very big boy in terms of the breed standard.

Drogen’s current owner, Eugene Power, of Novato, bought him as a private trail horse in the wake of the deadly fires last November in Paradise, CA.  Drogen had spent ten years as the loving trail horse of a family that lost everything in the fires except their three horses.  Exhausted and devastated by their loss, the owner and her daughter sold Drogen so that he could have the home and stability they could no longer provide.  Caryn Hoeflein remembers the happy day last November when Drogen arrived at Sky High Ranch, “He became a part of our family too.”  Hoeflein, who has ridden since she was a young girl, has encountered many rare horse breeds but Drogen is the first Gypsy Vanner she’s worked with.

Handsome and then some…Drogen. Photo: Hannah Beebe

When Hoeflein was first approached by Gary Sello of Indian Valley Carriage Company in Novato about providing a horse for SFO’s summer production of Carmen, her initial reaction was no. “I kind of laughed and thought no way. Generally, you don’t bring a horse into a building like that, through an elevator and up on stage with people singing, an orchestra, and a crowd…what goes through your head is everything that could go wrong.”  Hoeflein mulled it over with Drogen’s owner, factoring in Drogen’s recent experience at Petaluma’s Butter & Egg Days Parade—a big, long, noisy parade with loudspeakers, kids, balloons and general chaos.  “He really handled that very well, so I thought we’d give this a try.  I’m really glad we did.  It has been an absolute blast and everyone at the opera house has been bent over backwards to address my concerns and to make sure that Drogen is comfortable and happy.”

Before Drogen’s first visit to the opera house, Hoeflein had him fit with equine sneakers—think Sketchers…wide thick comfortable rubber shoes—so he wouldn’t slip on the painted plywood stage.  Also, all the areas he walks on within the opera house were carpeted, which helps muffle the noise of him walking around backstage and helps with his sense of secure footing.  His route was also outlined in white tape to ensure that, in low light, Hoeflein could find her way through the house.

 

Drogen’s handler Caryn Hoeflein, Sky High Ranch, Penngrove, makes two appearances with Drogen in Carmen.  She’s a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo but uses a gentle approach with all the horses she works with.  Prior to Carmen, Hoeflein had never attended an opera.  Her husband and two boys, ages 10 and 13, attended both the final dress rehearsal and last Thursday’s performance and came away proud and loving opera.  Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Just like any other SF Opera artist, Drogen has an SFO ID badge and, when he enters the opera house; he stops for a security check.  Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen wears equine sneakers. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen’s view of the house, sans audience, from the SFO stage. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

Drogen’s introduction to the stage was a gradual build-up over several visits.  At first, he went in and out of the opera house entrance.   Then, he ventured further into the house, which entails going through another set of doors after the security desk and walking through a freight elevator to get backstage.  Then, he was led onto the stage to get a good look around.  He got used to the large crowd on stage and then they sang.  Then, Escamillo mounted Drogen in the backstage area and Hoeflein led them both on stage for his aria, which is what really melts hearts in the audience.  They were three or four practice runs in before they added the full orchestra, which turned out to be a non-issue for sweet Drogen.  He seemed to find Bizet’s music soothing.  Nonetheless, Drogen wears foam earplugs for every performance, which helps muffle the music and cheering.  For the scene with Carmen, they did the same gradual build up with J’Nai Bridges.

Neither Kyle Ketelsen nor J’Nai Bridges had ridden much before and came up to Sky High Ranch to meet Drogen before the first performance.  It was one of those unexpectedly stormy days we had this spring, so all the rehearsing, including Kyle singing, was done inside the barn.  You can see that here.

Since most of Drogen’s performances are in the evenings, Caryn gives him a bath around 1 pm, shampooing his whole body, washing and conditioning his mane and tail and paying special attention to his feathers, which are “dirt magnets.”  He is served a hearty lunch (a pelleted complete stable mix, which helps him keep his weight up) and eats al fresco, air drying in the sun.  Hoeflein braids his mane and tail so that they are lush and wavy for his performance.  For the ride down to SF, he wears a lightweight equine cotton sheet.  They pack up and leave about 2.5 hours before the performance and their first entrance is about an hour into the show.

“I save his dinner (hay) for after we arrive so he has something to do while waiting,” says Hoeflein, who parks on the sidewalk of the opera house near the lawn area.  She takes him out of the trailer upon arrival, gets him ready, and then loads him back in the trailer until about 10 min before he makes his stage appearance.  “I leave him in the trailer while I go inside and get my chaps on.  He’s very comfortable in his trailer and this keeps the crowd away.  Everyone wants a photo and that can cause some anxiety.”

Caryn Hoeflein leads Drogen and Escamillo (bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen) on stage for Carmen’s Act II Toreador aria.  Surrounded by a singing crowd, Drogen is every bit the pro.  Photo: Cory Weaver

 

Drogen returns in Act IV.  Hoeflein mounts in the parking lot, rides through several sets of doors and backstage and then moves Drogen over to a large set of stairs.  J’Nai Bridges (Carmen) mounts bareback, sidesaddle style (with both legs on one side), and sits right behind Hoeflein.  They have about 2 min before the signal to get on stage.  Hoeflein rides Bridges out to front of the stage.  While the chorus is singing, Bridges extends her arms and Escamillo helps her off Drogen.  Hoeflein rides to an area in the back of the stage and waits for about 30 seconds while they do their scene and then rides Drogen backstage and they exit the opera house. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen’s original owner attended last Friday’s performance, their first reunion since his sale.  She loved the performance and Drogen received a special surprise—jolly rancher candies.  “Putting him up for sale was so hard for her,” said Hoeflein, “but she is very happy that he has a wonderful home now and she feels she made the right choice.”

Prior to his appearances at SF Opera, Drogen led a quiet life.  In fact, as a trail horse, all he had ever been asked to do was walk and trot; he rarely cantered.  If there were ever an inspirational story about life as a senior, it’s his—Drogen has embraced life in the fast lane and the attention lavished on him on the SFO stage.

Details: There are 3 remaining performances of Carmen at SF Opera:  Sun, 6/23 (2 pm); Wed, 6/26 (7:30 pm) and Sat, 6/29 (7:30 pm).  Run time is 2 hours and 47 min.  Tickets:  www.sfopera.com, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave.  Tickets are extremely limited and most performances are sold out.

Sky High Ranch’s Facebook page: click here.

 

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June 22, 2019 - Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. A dream interview for Geneva–an opera horse!

    Comment by Karen Petersen | June 23, 2019 | Reply


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