Backstage with Matthew

Backstage with Matthew: Entering in Style

To quote Shakespeare, “all men and women...have their exits and entrances” but it has to be said that not all entrances are created equally. As we continue our run of Carmen, I’ve had many questions about the entrance of Escamillo and the four-footed friend on which he arrives and departs. I thought it was time to share with you the story of Drogen, our equine show-stealer in Carmen.

Drogen and handler

Drogen with his handler, Caryn Hoeflein, preparing to go onto stage.

Drogen is a 13-year old Gypsy Vanner – an affable breed of draft horses known for pulling Romani caravans in the UK, and introduced into the US only around 20 years ago. His current owner purchased him as a private trail horse after a very sad turn of events last year. Drogen began life in Paradise, CA, where he spent over a decade with his owner and her daughter. Very sadly in the fires last year, his owners lost everything but thankfully not their three horses. But, because they didn’t have anywhere to house the horses and, given the lack of time to make alternate plans, they decided to sell Drogen to give him a better life. For a moment it looked like he might become a member of the SFPD family, but life on the force was not to be, and Drogen found a new home being housed at the Sky High Ranch in Pengrove.

Drogen’s original owners are going to come and see one of the performances and it will be the first time that they’ve seen Drogen since they had to sell him. It promises to be a very emotional reunion.

Caryn and Howard Hoeflein run Sky High Ranch and they tell me that operatic adventures are new for their horses. They stable about 16 horses at the Ranch and, while their horses have been in St. Patrick’s Day Parades and at Mounted Drill events, they’ve never before trod the boards. But, when their friend Gary Sello (who has provided horses to the Opera in the past) asked them if they might have a suitable horse, Caryn leaped at the chance.

Drogen and previous owners

Caryn and Howard Hoeflein with Drogen.

Drogen is ridden by Escamillo in and out of Escamillo’s big scene in Act II, but he then also returns carrying J’Nai Bridges for the final scene of Carmen. J’Nai sits just behind Caryn, which means that J’Nai is essentially riding sidesaddle bareback on Drogen – a nail-biting entry!

Drogen makes an entrance

Escamillo makes his entrance on Drogen. Photo Cory Weaver.


J’Nai mounts Drogen and then makes her Act IV entrance sidesaddle bareback, perched next to Caryn.

Drogen arrives about ½ hour before the Opera begins, and is fully credentialled with an SFO ID to enter the Opera House. In fact, he makes his entrance through the Stage Door as with any artist. But his preparation begins much earlier than that.

Drogen pre performance

Caryn with Drogen waiting outside the Opera House before entering through the Stage Door.

Caryn spends about 4 hours washing Drogen before the Opera and then a couple of hours of grooming, either on the morning of if it’s an evening show, or the afternoon prior if it’s a matinee. Gypsy Vanners are particular known for the large display of ‘feathers’ just below their knees, along with beautifully long manes and tails. While beautiful, these features also make for rigorous grooming, particularly when Drogen needs to look spotless for his onstage entrance. Once bathed, Drogen wears a light coverall to ensure he stays pristine! Caryn also braids Drogen’s mane and tail while he’s not onstage, to keep it from getting matted.

washing feet

Washing Drogen’s “feathers” before covering him up to stay clean for the Opera! Photos courtesy Caryn Hoeflein.

It’s critical whenever you have a live animal onstage to acclimate the animal to its setting. There was a number of steps that happened with Drogen. First, J’Nai Bridges and Kyle Ketelsen (our Carmen and Escamillo) went up to visit Drogen at Sky High Ranch where they got to know him on his own turf. You can see a little of the acclimation process here.

Drogen with J'Nai

J’Nai Bridges getting to know Drogen (note Drogen’s stylish braids). Photo courtesy J’Nai Bridges.

We then had another period of acclimation in the theater. Before we rehearsed any scene with Drogen for the first time, we ran it without music so that he could walk the stage, and get used to the placement of the crowds. We also did some musical acclimation to ensure that Drogen could get used to the might for the full orchestra just feet away from him. Thankfully nothing fazes Drogen. He’s an unflappable artist!

Animals fall under the jurisdiction of our props department and our Master of Properties, Lori Harrison. She and her team ensure that everything works seamlessly. When Drogen enters the backstage area, he has safe paths backstage marked off with white tape to ensure that Caryn has a clear line of sight when she’s riding him, even under low-light conditions. There are then special areas set up for J’Nai and Kyle to mount Drogen. And, as you might imagine, equipment is at the ready just in case Drogen leaves a little gift on or off stage…

path of travel

Drogen’s path of travel, marked out in clearly visible lines even during low light conditions. Rubber horse shoes (right) deal with any noise problem potential! (Hoof photo courtesy Caryn Hoeflein).

When Drogen’s not onstage, he’s often found walking laps around the War Memorial grounds. He’s actually much more calm onstage than off, and Caryn works to keep him active when he’s outside. Needless to say, he spends a lot of time getting selfies with people outside as well!

Caryn has been riding since she was eight and is passionate about horses. She is also a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo and she jokes that this combination of horse training, martial arts and opera is maybe something of a first.

Drogen in WMOH

The War Memorial Opera House from atop Drogen. Photo courtesy Caryn Hoeflein.

It’s been a joy to work with Drogen and Caryn these past few weeks and they are doing fabulous work onstage as we bring the evocative swirl of Seville to the War Memorial Opera House. W.C. Fields quipped that you should never work with children or animals. We like to eschew that dictum wherever possible and in Carmen we have wonderful appearances from both!

Matthew on Drogen

I couldn’t resist! Enjoying a brief moment with Drogen! Photo courtesy Howard Hoeflein.

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