At The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the responsibility for running and managing the props department falls on the shoulders of Antony Barnett, who recently discussed his work with The Gramophone Magazine. Barnett’s responsibilities are wide reaching and include budgeting, costing and ensuring productions run to schedule. He studied theatre design at West Sussex College of Design in Worthing and cut his teeth in the commercial world of prop making as a freelance prop maker at Glyndebourne during his student days. This was followed by a permanent position at Glyndebourne and further roles at venues such as Theatr Clwyd in Wales. He joined The Royal Opera House in the 1980s.
Day-To-Day Prop Making
With a core of around a dozen members, which can double in size when working on prop-heavy productions, the ROH props department is always busy, serving both The Royal Opera itself, and The Royal Ballet. The demands on the department are constantly changing as both companies have completely different artistic needs. This variety is what keeps the job exciting for Anthony Barnett, makes the Royal Opera House, “a really good place to do our job in.”
The process of prop making remains a passion, and he still spends about 60% of his time making props, with the balance set aside for the management of the department itself. “I think it would be very difficult to run the department not knowing how to do things. I couldn’t possibly measure what people would need if I didn’t know how to do it in the first place,” he comments.
Six-Foot High Nodding Dogs
The highly imaginative worlds of opera and ballet mean that the ROH props department is often called upon to produce extravagant, eye-catching creations. One of their recent productions was Anna Nicole, Richard Thomas’s musical about the tragic life of the Playboy model. This required the creation of six-foot high nodding dogs, and an entire set full of giant ceramic animals, which presented quite a challenge.
Image copyright Alistair Muir.
Barnett feels that the best props are those that are visually arresting and that respect the Director’s wishes without dominating proceedings. They are there to assist the production, not to be the production itself. It‘s a difficult balance to get right. Some props remain specific to their production; they cannot be swapped between shows, which is partly why props become such highly valued commodities. After each ROH production the props are carefully stored away, ready for reuse in the next revival. More recently, however, with the tightening of budgets in all areas of the creative industry, props managers try to work in collaboration with other companies to share the props they make. Barnett realised that it makes sound economic sense to work in this way, and budgeting is never far from a Props Department Manager’s mind. His department recently produced props for a Royal Ballet production of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, in collaboration with The National Ballet of Canada.
According to Barnett, what makes a good opera prop is: ‘having a good prop maker to make it.’ Without his team of highly professional prop makers, The Royal Opera House productions would not enjoy the world-famous reputation that they have now. He has created a vibrant, creative department that is the envy of every opera house in the world.
Make time for a tour of the Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop, where the set designers make scenery for ROH productions.
Or why not have a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House itself?
You can watch a video of the Props department at work here.
You can see a gallery of images and props from the Anna Nicole production here.
There is a gallery of images of props that the department made for Falstaff and Les Troyens here.