July 2, 2022
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Backstage at 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 quick however notable function in this romantic, tragic opera: Throughout the grand Café Momus scene, she pulls a brightly coloured cart stuffed with toys, which the peddler Parpignol fingers out to excited youngsters.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish manufacturing, the second is an awe-inspiring spectacle, evoking the Latin Quarter in Paris and bustling with some 250 folks onstage — and a donkey and a horse, who pulls a hansom cab onstage for a dramatic entrance.

Wanda has massive hooves to fill. For 16 seasons, the function was performed by the similar donkey, Sir Gabriel, who was adored by forged members and backstage crew. “He was an enormous presence at 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, vogue, 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 highway. At first, the two have been aloof towards one another, standing on both facet of the paddock, however after a couple 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 reside 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 exterior a bar to draw clients. She has starred in commercials. And she or he is a recurring star of providers on Palm Sunday at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, as the donkey that Jesus rides into Jerusalem. This season, although, was her first time on the Met stage — and Novograd mentioned, up to now, so good.

What makes for opera donkey? It’s not so completely different from what makes for any good opera star. “In the case of hoofed animals like horses and donkeys, you need one who’s daring reasonably than quiet, which generally surprises folks,” Novograd mentioned. “There’s quite a bit happening that may appear horrifying or harmful, and in the event that they’re too timid that may overwhelm them. Confidence is the most vital factor, whether or not it’s a horse or a donkey or a canine.”

Each night time of the “Bohème” run, Wanda comes in a trailer both from Wallkill, N.Y., or the Bronx, the place she stays when she has a gentle gig in 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 in the Met, previous costumes in storage, lockers for the forged and stagehands, items of the set, and different miscellany behind the curtain. 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 getting older, 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 numerous 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, a lot of whom are frequent performers. He had two in a current revival of “Aida,” whose Triumphal Scene is considered 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 received underway, and snatches of arias drifted backstage, the animals and their handlers slowly received their costumes collectively. Allegra placed on his hat and Nineteenth-century interval coat for a stroll throughout the stage. Martyn Blackmore, who was main Wanda, additionally received 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 have been connected and which weren’t, so he may distribute them to the youngsters onstage.

“Animals and youngsters,” Warren mentioned. “Having them onstage actually modifications issues up. That’s considered one of the greatest issues about reside efficiency, that it modifications each night time.”

Wanda’s hat was placed on, as was a colourful fabric, blue and gold with purple fringe, that coated her again. Like an skilled starlet, she was unfazed by all the adjusting and fussing. Lord nibbled at her hat, and infrequently the two nuzzled. However Wanda principally stared into house, her massive donkey eyes swiveling.

Then everybody sprang into motion. “Donkey coming down,” somebody yelled, urging folks to get out of the approach, as the animals have been led into the wings. A workforce of stagehands and handlers connected Lord’s hansom cab, and Musetta and her paramour loaded into it, with their prop purchasing packages. A cabby stood on prime with a whip, and Allegra, dignified in his interval costume, stood at his facet.

The cue lastly got here, and Wanda led the approach out of the wings. She emerged into the commotion of music and crowds, Parpignol peddling his wares, and Mimì and Rodolfo falling in love in opposition to the backdrop of the wild, colourful show. It was Wanda’s fleeting second in the lights.

Simply as shortly, she ambled throughout the stage into the wings on the different facet, the place she was unclipped, undressed, unharnessed, able to make her approach to Wallkill, earlier than she does all of it once more on Friday.

However first: time exterior, and hay.

“After the present,” Novograd mentioned, “she at all times will get treats.”

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