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

Review: “In Paris”—Mikhail Baryshnikov is smoldering as a downtrodden general in a May-December romance, at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Last Wednesday’s opening night performance of In Paris at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre began an uncharacteristic 17 minutes late.  No one was more keenly aware of this than Mikhail Baryshnikov, who stood waiting quietly in darkness at the back of the stage for the action to begin. And when it did begin, none of us were exactly sure what was happening because we had been thrown a kilter by the time…but a slight woman in a hat appeared in the front rows, where the audience was seated, and she made her way to the left wall of the theatre and began to move a blown-up postcard through the tightly seated audience, bumping a few people in the process. She foisted it up onto to the stage where she then dragged and rotated it towards a stationary Baryshnikov, who was dressed in a trench coat, staring downwards. The black and white image was an old photo of Notre Dame and, as tentative and drawn out as the gesture was, we had all just made the symbolic journey to Paris.  That’s just one of the vehicles that Russian director Dmitry Krymov uses to engage his audiences in this very poetic staging of Baryshnikov’s new show which tells its story through music, song, video projections, props that are suggestive of moving collage or puzzle pieces, dramatic lighting by Damir Ismagilov, and a palette of black, white and gray hues in Maria Tregubova’s set and costume design.

Director Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris” opens with Anna Sinyakina dramatically dragging a huge postcard of the Notre Dame onto the stage of Berkeley’s Rep’s Roda Theatre and plopping it down it by Mikhail Baryshnikov (right). Photo: Maria Baranova

The story itself is set in Paris in the 1930’s and has been adapted from a short story written in 1940 by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, who himself lived in exile in Paris and never returned to Russia.  Baryshnikov is Nikolai Platonitch, a retired general of White Russian army who was thrown out of Russia by the Bolshevik army, is living in Paris, and by chance meets a beautiful young Russian émigré, Olga, a waitress, played by the compelling young Russian actress Anna Sinyakina.  The two lonely souls fall in love but, alas, their tender journey is bittersweet.  Rounding out the ensemble are actors from Russia and Finland, members of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, who don’t have defined roles but serve as a chorus, accompanying the drama at the moment by moving props and singing.

Legendary performer Mikhail Baryshnikov is a retired general of the White Russian army living in exile Paris who is in a May-December romance with Anna Sinyakina in “In Paris,” at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Baryshnikov, now 64, is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century but he has also enjoyed an extensive acting career.  He made his first film debut in the 1977 film The Turning Point, and was last seen on Sex and the City, playing the man dumped by Carrie Bradshaw. His most recent theatrical performance was in Beckett Shorts, a collection off four short Beckett plays, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis for Samuel Beckett’s centenary in 2007.  In In Paris, he first appears in shadows, not moving much at all, yet gesturing the girl with an inner movement.  Instead of physically gliding towards her like he did so dramatically in numerous ballets, he practices a form of expression that relies on calling forth his bearing as a general who has shed his uniform but still wears it invisibly.  The girl responds.

Dmitry Krymov, the influential Russian artist, director, and set designer has given Bunin’s story new resonance. His small experimental Moscow theater company, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the past 7 years for its repertoire of staged works called “painters theatre” with a very dominant and engaging visual aesthetic. In the first few minutes of In Paris, the word “loneliness” is projected across the stage in several languages, evoking a connection to the world’s displaced peoples and the collective loneliness that underpins Bunin’s story. Video projections of texts—dialogue translations and poetry—are projected creatively across the stage and actors throughout, making a dynamic visual impression.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

The drama is organized around a circle which symbolically reinforces the characters’ situations in a fairly typical Russian love story.  The aged Baryshnikov/Nikolai Platonitch has lived his life and he’s not leaving his destiny.  Sinyakina/Olga is a simple soul who has been endowed with beauty.  She has a small world and doesn’t dream outside of it.  She has a moment with him and then it ends and that’s it.  Her crest comes in a brief scene of preparation and anticipation, as she dresses for her first date with Platonitch.  She stands before the audience and does something akin to Salome’s dance of the seven veils with her dress, a magnificently stretchy and utilitarian creation which she transforms into dozens of fashion statements before settling on the right one. Other props evoke a subtly humorous association with handicrafts—there’s the tilted table at the restaurant, that serves as foil for a delightful small talk about soup, and later a car—a large cut-out—that transports them on their first date.

There are relatively few spoken words but hearing Baryshnikov and Sinyakina communicate tenderly in their native Russian is soothing, lyrical—especially their precious small talk about soup.

Baryshnikov sustains our interest keenly throughout as a presence not dependent on movement at all—it isn’t until the end that he dances briefly.  He collapses and then there’s a dream sequence, a kind of resurrection, where he’s a matador dominating a bull against the musical backdrop of Bizet’s Carmen.  His dance is elegant, refined, brief— the perfect ending to this dynamic collage that paints a rich portrait of two lost souls and the illusive nature of love.

It’s been a very strong season for Berkeley Rep which prepped us for this melancholy Russian story with Chekov’s Three Sisters  in April 2011, a Russian classic steeped in loss whose characters’ sufferings are not too distant from those of In Paris.

Run time is 80 minutes with no intermission

Performed in Russian and French with English subtitles

Adapted from the short story by Ivan Bunin; Direction and adaptation by Dmitry Krymov; Set and costume design by Maria Tregubova; Music by Dmitry Volkov

Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Sinyakina, Maxim Maminov, Maria Gulik, Dmitry Volkov, and Polina Butko with Ossi Makkonen and Lasse Lindberg

Featuring the work of Damir Ismagilov (lighting designer), Andrey Shchukin (movement coach), Alexei Ratmansky (choreographer), and Tei Blow (audio and video designer)

A production of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, and the AG Foundation in association with the Korjaamo Culture Factory of Helsinki, Finland.

Free tastings:  Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

  • Friday, May      4: Peterson Winery / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 5: Calstar Cellars / 7pm
  • Friday, May      11: Cater Too / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 12: Via Pacifica Selections/ 7pm

Details: In Paris runs for three weeks only and ends May 13, 2012.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are $22.50 -$125, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30.  For tickets and info:  http://www.berkeleyrep.org  or phone 510.647.2949

May 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen”─two mezzos, Kendall Gladen and Anita Rachvelishvili, will there be any heat?

Mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, a former Adler Fellow, plays Carmen and Thiago Arancam is Don Jose in San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen” which runs through December 4, 2011 at War Memorial Opera House. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera

Last Sunday afternoon’s opening of Bizet’s Carmen at San Francisco Opera brought high hopes with mezzo soprano Kendall Gladen as Carmen, a role the former Adler Fellow has played to great acclaim at leading opera houses.  The blasé performance was buoyed immensely by Nicola Luisotti’s passionate conducting─rousing, brisk, clear, fresh and attenuated with marvelous aplomb─but when the conductor generates more heat than the lead singer, and the two leading men─ Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam (as army corporal Don José) and Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot (as bullfighter Escamillo)─were not hitting their strides, one can only hope that mezzo number two, Anita Rachvelishvili (rotch-vell-esh-VEEL-ee), who steps in this week, will bring some fire to the stage.  

Aside from Luisotti’s marvelous conducting, the vocal highpoints were the children’s chorus and the San Francisco Opera chorus, both singing very well.  Soprano Sara Gartland, a current Adler Fellow, was touching as Micaëla, especially in her moving Act I duet with Don José though her voice at times seemed almost too powerful for the role.  Carmen’s sidekicks Susannah Biller as Frasquita and Cybele Gouverneur as Mercédès also added some pizzazz.  Wayne Tigges as Zuniga, and Timothy Mix as La Dancaïre and Daniel Montenegro as Le Remendado sang their minor roles with aplomb and proficiency.  José Maria Condemi’s restaging of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1981 production was also effective.  The handsome sets were designed in sumptuous earthen hues evoking 19th century Seville and provided an excellent backdrop for the red-hot passion that should have unfolded onstage.  Next week, another mezzo-soprano, Tbilisi-born Anita Rachvelishvili, also experienced in the role and very much looking the part, steps forward as Carmen.  Let’s hope she brings some fire to our beloved aria, “Habanera,” and makes that flower she tosses at Don José in Act I wilt, as should he.   Carmen is all about seduction–through music, voice, and dance and bodies exuding and responding to passion.  If we aren’t seduced, it’s just not Carmen.  

Details: Carmen is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.  There are eight remaining performances:  Tuesday, 11/15/2011, at 8 p.m with Anita Rachvelishvili; Thursday, 11/17/2011, at 7:30 p.m. with Anita Rachvelishvili; Sunday, 11/20/2011, at 2 p.m. with Anita Rachvelishvili; Wednesday, 11/23/2011, at 7:30 p.m with Anita Rachvelishvili; Saturday, 11/26/2011, at 8 p.m; Tuesday, 11/29/2011, at 7:30 p.m; Friday December 2, 2011.  Tickets are $29 to $330.  Information: www.sfopera.com.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment