SFOpera - The Mystery of Scarpia’s Missing Chicken Leg

The Mystery of Scarpia’s Missing Chicken Leg

Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck once wrote, “Hunger makes a thief of any man.” This story, adapted from the 2001’s Propera Cookbook, proves that point.

The cookbook was presented as a parting gift to then-outgoing San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri. It featured a collection of backstage stories and recipes put together by the Company’s props department, which is often tasked with cooking for the stage. Here is one of their tales:

As operas with food go, the 1992 production of Tosca was expected to be pretty easy to prepare. A single chicken leg, along with some garnish, was all that was required.

Since it wasnt practical to buy a single leg, the props department would purchase an entire roasted chicken from a restaurant called The Chicken Coop, the consensus being that their rotisserie birds looked the best on stage. (We’d had to use ten at a time for each performance of 1992’s La Forza del Destino by Verdi.)

After separating the leg from the rest of the bird and placing it on an elegant china plate and silver tray, the leftover chicken was, well, up for grabs. 

“Up for grabs” meant that stagehands from three departments descended on the poor bird and instantly dismembered and devoured it. A flock of starving buzzards couldnt have picked a carcass cleaner.

Things went fine throughout the rehearsals. Our Scarpia that year was quite satisfied with his designated chicken leg and managed to finish it each night during his Act II meal. This, despite having to stalk menacingly about the stage making Toscas life miserable.

On opening night, however, disaster struck. It was during intermission between Acts I and II that the key right prop man went about garnishing Scarpia’s plate. The usual horde of stagehands stood around, jackal-like, eyeing the ravaged bones of that night’s chicken. As the prop man reached toward the cutting board for the all-important chicken leg, he was surprised to find the board legless.

Hey, guys, quit joking around,” he said, although “joking” may not have been the precise verb he used.

It very quickly became apparent that the chicken leg, due onstage in approximately 10 minutes, was not missing but, rather, gone — and not coming back either.

The prop man was frozen by a combination of disbelief and outrage, melting into virtual uselessness. Stagehands from other departments, sensing impending trouble, began slipping out of the prop room clutching various chicken parts — none of them, however, the missing chicken leg.

It was then that our assistant property master Mike Willcox, a man then well on the back side of fifty, rose from his desk. He put on his jacket and, without a word, broke into a dead sprint out the door.

He was back within five minutes from the Opera Plaza Deli with a whole roasted chicken which he set down on the counter in front of the stunned prop crew. Still without speaking, he returned to his computer. It was an act of stoic heroism and a speed record that has remained unbroken by much younger men.

So the show went on.

An intense and brutal investigation was launched into the case of the missing chicken leg. No crew member was above suspicion. Garbage cans were searched. Statements from eyewitnesses were taken. Not a clue ever emerged. To this day the crime remains unsolved.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Kinney was a member of the San Francisco Opera Properties Department from 1990 to 2019. At the time of his retirement, he served as stage-left key, one of the crew heads onstage.

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