You hum it, they'll make it

Never mind the arias, where did they get that python? Gina Cowen goes backstage to investigate opera's fantasy factory

What stays in your mind after the last notes have died away and the curtain has dropped? Months pass. Years even. And then what is it that you remember? Hytner's marvellous production of Xerxes for English National Opera? The deck chairs. His Magic Flute? That python around Tamino's neck. A Midsummer Night's Dream? The vast bed with the enormous inflatable pillows against which Titania is gigantically dwarfed into the essence of fairyhood. Ian Judge's beguiling Don Quixote? As much as Richard Van Allan's Don, you'll probably remember Rosinante his horse, or rather the remote-controlled equinally reconstructed tricycle. Forgotten the plot, let alone the libretto? Can't recall that aria? Any aria? No idea whatsoever of the orchestral score? Take heart in the enduring silent objects that, unsung, play a major part on every stage, and in every opera: the props.

Props (short for properties) basically cover everything that ends up on stage apart from the set and the singers. They also "prop up" the action and, in their own quiet way, can become protagonists in the drama: the handkerchief in Otello, the pin in The Marriage of Figaro, the severed head of John the Baptist in Salome. The latter, in ENO's latest staging, involved a latex mould taken from a life-cast of the singer Robert Hayward's head. Good props sustain the drama by aiding, in Coleridge's pertinent phrase, "our willing suspension of disbelief". (Bad props can cause total audience hysteria, as in a memorable production of Macbeth at the Oxford Playhouse. At one dramatic death climax, someone's cloak knocked down a row of cardboard cut-out tankards on an insubstantial table: we cried with laughter.)

Ivy Cannell has been working in the business of disbelief-suspension for the past 30 years. As props-making manager for English National Opera (with a brief spell at the Royal Opera in the Seventies), she runs the workshop producing anything from plaster-of-Paris chocolates or plastic lobster to Renaissance statues that wouldn't look amiss in the Louvre. Her staff (including a former motor mechanic from Australia) works from a large converted warehouse in Limehouse, East London. There's no stage glamour here. Function is the key, and craftsmanship. "We are artisans as opposed to artists," says Cannell. When Gerald Scarfe designed a psychiatrist's couch as a reclining naked woman for Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, it was the props department that had to make her come true (in foam rubber and leather) and stand up (or rather lie down) to the rigours of nightly use.

Props involve both practicality and compromise as the budget is always tight. "We try to re-use as much as possible. For instance, some of the chairs in the new Traviata are recycled rejects from the front of house." When a show is "deaded" (ie not to be produced again), the sets are destroyed but props are kept. They go into store to appear repainted or recovered at a later date. "We are often in negotiation with the designer to re- use props we have in store. It's a kind of salesmanship."

Other considerations are safety and indestructibility. We pass a banqueting table that will be used in Act 1 of tomorrow night's new Jonathan Miller Traviata. On it are china plates beautifully painted with green and gold on white. In fact, they're fibreglass: light and almost unbreakable. "Things have to move around so fast," says Cannell. "Once the season is running, you can have three different shows on stage in a matter of 24 hours: one show one night, rehearse another the next morning, third show the night after. It's a bit like a factory."

If durability is paramount, so is detail. And you have to bring distance into the equation. "There's a 20-foot orchestra pit to cross before you hit your first pair of eyes. Basically we aim for those in the first row to believe what they see. But the detail also has to show to those further back in the auditorium, if possible. It's often a balancing act between realism and overstatement."

This is an apt description for the props in Miller's new Traviata. Set in France's Deuxieme Empire, a vast chaise longue and an equally huge dining table dominate the first scene. Miller took the image from a painting by the 19th-century French satirical artist Gavarni and is meticulous with regard to authenticity, even though, as here, colour and size may be "hyperbolic".

Can authenticity go too far? In the Act 2 gaming scene in Traviata there's that chilling moment when Alfredo hurls money at Violetta, publicly branding the woman he still loves as a whore. Much research has been spent over these few seconds. For dramatic effect, Alfredo is to throw notes not coins (coins could also hurt someone), but the production office has discovered that there were no notes in circulation in France during the period in which the opera is set. They have finally compromised by copying a French bank note from 1793, which also, being obsolete currency, will not provoke the unimaginative arm of the law: copying currency isn't allowed, and when fake dollars showered down onto the stalls in the Brecht/Weill Mahagonny, ENO was obliged to print "sample" on each and every bill.

And it is not only the law that can object to dramatic realism. After rehearsing with a real python for The Magic Flute, it was decided not to go ahead and use it in performance because of the effect it had on some of the cast and might have on the audience (and, adds Cannell, it might not have been such a great night out for the python). So the props department made a false one.

Live animals still do appear and, rather oddly, come into the category of props. They could be termed unpredictable or creative props. There was a butterfly used in The Return of Ulysses, which flew off one night only to appear the next evening in a performance of Madam Butterfly. Two yellow canaries in Die Fledermaus got to know the score so well that they would join in singing the music, while Papageno's white doves in The Magic Flute occasionally took a turn into the auditorium. But the best-known "animals" in recent years must be the endearing Heath-Robinsonesque "animatronic" horse and donkey in Don Quixote with their tricycle bodies and movable heads, eyes, ears, legs and tail (radio controlled by minders in the wings). You can catch them when they come out of their stable for the revival at the Coliseum early next month.

Less fantastical, but no less time-consuming, are the little props. Like coffee cups. They have to be cleaned and put in position (on prop tables, normally backstage left and right) for each performance. Brian Kinsey, show manager at ENO for the past 25 years, who frequently clocks up a 15-hour day, spends much of his time checking that everything is in place "down to the last detail". And it nearly always is. Kinsey does remember one occasion, though: Cosi fan tutte. It was produced in period costume. Lesley Garrett, as Despina, was supposed to come up a spiral staircase through the centre stage floor carrying a period coffee set. "Well, it had just vanished. Instead, she got a piece of wood with four polystyrene cups from the canteen which proceeded to fall off and roll around the stage. Being Lesley, she saw the funny side. It's become part of company legend."

n ENO's new season opens with Jonathan Miller's new 'Traviata', tomorrow 7.30pm London Coliseum, WC2 (0171-632 8300)

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