Donkey makes his Met Opera debut

Wanda, the donkey making her Metropolitan Opera debut this season, prepares to take the stage for the Cafe Momus stage of ‘La Boheme,’ in New York City. photos: DINA LITOVSKY/nyt

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, before the curtain rose recently on a revival of Puccini’s La Bohème, a donkey wearing a pink jester’s hat waited patiently for his cue.

It was Wanda, a 15 year old teenager, with beautiful brown stripes on her back and on her tail. Making her Met debut this season, Wanda plays a brief but notable role in this romantic and tragic opera: during the big scene in Cafe Momus, she pulls a brightly colored cart full of toys, which peddler Parpignol hands out to excited children.

Wanda, with manager Martyn Blackmore, left, and John Allegra and Nancy Novograd, backstage at ‘La Boheme’. DINA LITOVSKY/nyt

In Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production, the moment is an awe-inspiring spectacle, evoking the Latin Quarter in Paris and bustling with some 250 people on stage – and a donkey and a horse, which pulls a carriage across the stage for a dramatic entrance.

Wanda has big clogs to fill. For 16 seasons, the role was played by the same donkey, Sir Gabriel, adored by the cast and crew behind the scenes. “He was very present at the Met, in Barber of Sevillein Bohemia; he was really loved,” said Nancy Novograd, who runs All Tame Animals, the animal agency that works with the Met. (The agency has also portrayed hissing cockroaches and lion cubs, among other things, for film, fashion, theater and more.)

Handler Max Torgovnick backstage with Wanda the donkey, and Lord, a horse in ‘La Boheme’. DINA LITOVSKY/nyt

Sir Gabriel retired from opera this year at a farm Ms Novograd owns in Maryland. That’s no dark understatement: he’s started a second act as a pet donkey for a mare who lost her mate on a farm down the road. At first the two were distant towards each other, standing on either side of the paddock, but after a few months they grew closer and closer, until they eventually bonded.

And so Wanda took over the torch in Bohemian. She’s in her prime – donkeys often live to be 30-35 – and has prepared for this moment with a wide variety of roles. She’s been to a petting zoo and once stood outside a bar to attract customers. She acted in commercials. And she’s a recurring star of Palm Sunday services at St. Paul and St. Andrew’s Church, as the donkey that Jesus rides in Jerusalem. This season, however, was her first time on the Met stage – and Ms Novograd said, so far so good.

What makes a good opera donkey? It’s not that different from what makes any good opera star. “When it comes to hoofed animals like horses and donkeys, you want one that’s bold rather than calm, which sometimes surprises people,” Ms Novograd said. “There are a lot of things going on that may seem scary or dangerous, and if they’re too shy it will overwhelm them. Confidence is the most important thing, whether it’s a horse, donkey or dog.”

Donald Maxwell and Aleksandra Kurzak enter the Cafe Momus stage during ‘La Boheme’ at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. DINA LITOVSKY/nyt

Every evening of Bohemia run, Wanda comes in a trailer from either Wallkill, New York or the Bronx, where she stays when she has a regular gig in town. Mrs. Novograd and her handlers drag Wanda out of her trailer and head for what is known as “the horse gate”, a grand entrance on the street that leads to the Met’s maze of hallways, past stored costumes, lockers for the cast and stagehands, set pieces and miscellaneous behind the curtain. On opening night, Ms Novograd and three men – carrying buckets and shovels in case of an accident – led Wanda and her equine co-star Lord, a dark chestnut horse, to their waiting spot in the backstage, next to Wanda’s colorful trolley.

Lord pulls a hansom taxi, transporting Musetta’s character and her wealthy, aging lover to Cafe Momus, where they meet Mimi, Rodolfo, and Musetta’s old flame, Marcello. It’s a spectacular entrance, one that Lord, a 19-year-old former racehorse, has been making for years. (He also has a number of other notable roles, including recurring appearances on the TV show Golden ageand was made up as a zebra in The greatest showman.) John Allegra, his owner and on-stage manager, said, “Anyone, really, could ride this horse.”

Mr. Allegra owns 45 horses on a Connecticut farm, many of which are frequent performers. He had two in a recent revival of Aida, whose triumphal scene is one of the most animalistic of the opera. “When the horses hear those horns,” Mr. Allegra said. “They are ready.”

Wanda returns backstage after the Cafe Momus scene from ‘La Boheme’. DINA LITOVSKY/nyt

Behind the scenes of Bohemia, as Act 1 began and snippets of arias drifted offstage, the animals and their handlers slowly put their costumes together. Mr. Allegra donned his 19th century period hat and coat to walk around the stage. Martyn Blackmore, who ran Wanda, also dressed up. Gregory Warren, who plays Parpignol, appeared in his clown make-up and tested the toys in Wanda’s cart, to see which were attached and which weren’t, so he could hand them out to children on stage.

“Animals and children,” Warren said. “Having them on stage really changes things. That’s one of the best things about performing live, it changes every night.”

Wanda’s hat was put on, along with a colorful fabric, blue and gold with a purple fringe, which covered her back. Like a seasoned starlet, she wasn’t fazed by all the tweaks and fuss. Lord chewed on his hat, and sometimes the two huddled together. But Wanda was mostly staring off into space, her big donkey eyes swirling.

Then everyone swung into action. “A donkey is coming down,” someone shouted, urging people to move aside, as the animals were led backstage. A team of machinists and material handlers tied down Lord’s shed, and Musetta and her lover loaded into it, with their paraphernalia purchase packages. A taxi driver stood on it with a whip, and Mr. Allegra, dignified in his period dress, stood beside him.

The signal finally came and Wanda led the way offstage. She emerged amidst the roar of music and crowds, Parpignol peddling her wares, and Mimi and Rodolfo falling in love against the backdrop of the wild and colorful display. It was Wanda’s fleeting moment in the lights.

Wanda pulls a toy cart onstage during the Cafe Momus stage of ‘La Boheme,’ in New York City on May 15.

Just as quickly, she crossed the stage into the wings on the other side, where she was unclipped, stripped, stripped, ready to head to Wallkill, before doing it all again the following night.

But first: time outside and hay.

“After the show,” Ms. Novograd said, “she always gets treats.”

About Madeline J. Carter

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