Donkeys, camels and bicycles: Exploring the set and prop stores of WNO

Posted on Iau, 2014-05-01 16:11 by Opera Explorer

‘If you look in there, you see those white buildings in the distance? That’s the White House.’ For WNO Technical Manager David Flinn, such sightings are part of an ordinary day’s work.  He continues, ‘This was Rigoletto. It’s based in the White House and The Duke was the president.’ A few moments later, he adds, ‘This is the circus performance area of Cav and Pag. Here is Falstaff, with its forests and Tudor-clad buildings. And come and look here; this is the bicycle that flies with the children across the sky in The Magic Flute.’ In case you are concerned that David or I have lost our minds, then perhaps it is time to relieve any confusion: we are taking a walking tour of the cavernous set storage warehouses of Welsh National Opera. 

A ten minute drive from the company home of the Wales Millennium Centre leads us to an industrial estate where the company’s set storage units can be found.  This is where many of WNO’s more cherished productions have come to rest, flat-packed in their allotted bays like stock in a very quirky Ikea. Dave has worked at WNO from the year 2000, and as he takes me through the warehouse, he reels off the names of the productions we are passing: Don Carlos, Tosca, Carmelites, and Cosi fan tutte. Many of these sets were built by Cardiff Theatrical Services, a powerhouse of activity whose brilliant team routinely produces world-class constructions for WNO, National Theatre Wales, and the West End (such as the recent new musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). So full of life on stage, there is something slightly eerie about seeing these styrofoam trees, two-dimensional beams and hollow statues now lying dormant, with the looming, misshapen silhouettes of an elephant graveyard. Pointing to a bay stacked with green-tinted boards and a grinning gargoyle, David remarks, ‘This one here is Barber of Seville, another old classic, and it must be 20-odd years old now. This one’s Figaro, but I believe it’s a dead show now.’ I asked him what happens to shows that have reached the end of their performance life:

‘Outside in the yard we’ve got a skip – we recycle them. All the props from the show will go upstairs to the prop store. All the steel work will be taken apart and stripped down to the bare metal, and that will go to the steel works for recycling. The woodwork will then go to a company that specialises in recycling timber, where it can be turned horse-bedding and things like that.’ The set is only consigned to the landfill as a very last resort. 

In contrast with the quietness of the first warehouse, when we walk into the second store next door, there is a bustling atmosphere of activity. The WNO crew are loading familiar-looking, long black pieces of wood into a bay. It is the set of Manon, our Spring season production which finished touring only a month ago. It is being temporarily returned to the stores before the company takes it to Savonlinna on tour this summer. This next adventure will bring its own challenges, as David tells me; ‘We can’t do the same version we’ve been doing on tour - it has to be reduced. When we get out there, I gather, you have to take it by road to port, it goes on a ferry across the lake to the castle, and then it’s craned over the castle walls, because nothing fits through the doors!’ As we walk past the much-loved David Pountney production of The Cunning Little Vixen, I ask Flinn how long it takes to prepare an entire set for exportation. ‘For something like Vixen,’ he tells me, ‘eight men in one day could have it packed and loaded into a shipping container, ready to go,’ which just shows how slick the operation has to be.

Keeping these sets in storage means they are available for other companies to hire, which is when they can start to generate their own income, much like the ‘dead props’ store upstairs. Possibly even spookier than the set warehouses, the top floor of the building contains a collection of abandoned props from discarded shows. Despite being separated from their original productions long ago, this mind-boggling miscellany of lanterns, donkeys, goblets, Steampunk bicycles, camel heads and tangled chairs, comes into its own when designers need to begin working our their ideas for props. ‘Instead of buying ten new examples of an object, we can get an idea of what they want by showing them something from this store.’ The store is also a functioning prop hire business, and is currently supplying locally produced TV shows, such as Dr Who and Casualty. WNO’s collection of Victoriana is particularly popular with external companies, I am told! 

As we leave, David points out a genuine 1960s hat stand, as well as a curious, old-fashioned medical table on skiis. Nobody knows when it was last used in a show at WNO, and nobody has claimed it for decades. It is quite possible that it is a real historical artefact from the war. As we leave, we pass parts of the Moses und Aron set, which are ready to be painted ahead of opening night on 24th May by Cardiff Theatrical Services , who not only build new sets, but also oversee the maintenance and painting of revivals too. So it seems that a visit to the WNO warehouses doesn’t just entail overseas travel to the White House, but also involves a fair amount of time-travel too. Onwards, to the summer season and beyond!

Sophie Rashbrook