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She has her own dressing-room, stunt double and personal trainer, and she plays a leading role in Janacek's austere opera From The House Of The Dead. Schnorbitz, a 17-year-old tawny eagle, is the unlikely star of the Welsh National Opera's latest production, writes Mark Rowe.

For most of the opera, which opens on 6 June, Schnorbitz's role is played by a "stunt" stuffed eagle that sits in a cage. But at the dramatic finale of the piece, set in a Siberian gulag, she flies around the stage watched by the cast of prisoners, in a gesture that symbolises the freedom most of them will never attain.

Schnorbitz's trainer, Ceri Griffiths, says the eagle is so eager to play her part that she starts flapping her 6ft wings when she hears her cue music. "The eagle is so intelligent that she recognises from the music when it is time for her to fly," he said. "She also sits and stares at her reflection in the dressing room mirrors." Her flight to freedom is a vital part of Janacek's work and a live eagle is essential to the effect of the opera, said WNO spokesman Dewi Savage.

"The opera starts with the injured bird being tormented but eventually the prisoners nurse it back to health in a cage," he said. "By the end of the performance the bird has attained a mythical status for these men, most of whom have been doomed to everlasting penal servitude. It is an extraordinary moment as the bird rises up in keeping with the soaring music and intense drama."

For the last 30 minutes of the opera, taken from Dostoevsky's semi-autobiographical story, the tawny eagle sits on a post, tethered discreetly to Mr Griffiths, before being released to fly across the stage and into the wings.