A horse, a donkey and Seattle Opera's "Don Quixote"

Mar 6, 2011

Seattle Opera’s latest production is “Don Quixote.” The show is a spectacle, featuring sets that look like humongous books; computer-animated windmills; and flamenco dancers.

The cast also features a memorable pair from Bothell who is making its operatic debut: Millie, a donkey, and Desperado, a horse.

Linda Brovsky is directing the production at McCaw Hall, which tells the story of a passionate bookworm, Quixote, who rides a horse. And the adventures taken with his squire Sancho Panza, whose trusty companion is a donkey.

For the Seattle premiere of the opera, Brovsky said it only made sense to use live animals because they feature so prominently in the 17th Century Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

"I felt it was important that the animals the characters relate to were real like they were. Because you turn it into a cartoon when Sancho Panza is singing an aria to a cardboard horse," she says.

Singing to a Donkey?

Bass baritone Richard Bernstein has been an opera singer for 21 years. He shares the role of Sancho Panza.

"I’ve had the great great honor and privilege of working with some great singers," he says. "But I’ve never had the privilege of singing to a donkey."

In the performing arts, singers and actors don’t typically want to be on stage with a child or animal. Because who’s going to be looking at YOU when you’re standing next to someone super-cute – or super furry?

But the strapping Bernstein doesn’t mind.

"She has these fantastic ears that work independently of each other, so you could be singing to her and all of a sudden one ear will turn to you and it will turn away. And the other ear will come in. You can tell she’s enjoying it because when you’re singing to her she’s very calm."

Opera and Animals

Over the years, Seattle Opera productions have featured a goat, in "Porgy and Bess." A bear in "The Ring." And a monkey in "Die Fledermaus."

Brovksy, the director, has overseen more than 50 operas throughout the country.

She’s no stranger to working with casts that include animals.

She’s worked with dogs. And for a festival production of "Aida," the cast once featured a lion, three tigers, a snake. And more.

"The crazy producer wanted an elephant. She was great. Her name was Dolly and she’d do just about anything for an orange."

Desperado and Millie prefer something crunchier, namely carrots.

Preparing the Animals for the Opera Stage

When they're they’re not at McCaw Hall, the animals live at Branch’s Quarter Horses in Bothell, where an entire team has been helping them prepare.

To get them used to the opera, they’ve been listening to a recording every night in their stables.

But it’s Millie, the donkey, who’s really had to stretch for the role, says trainer Casey Branch:

"She’s actually a mule donkey before this. She’d do plowing. So this is the first time really being handled as much as she’s been."

Technically, Desperado and Millie are considered “props,” hauled into McCaw hall the way sets get rolled onto the stage, except these animals have a specially-constructed ramp to walk on.

They also follow the same rules performers do: like no eating during the show. For the singers, that has to do with not getting their costumes dirty. For the animals, it's about avoiding any unscripted accidents.  (In case that happens, there’s a prop guy on stage, complete with a period-looking shovel).

Prop or not, no one attracts more attention than Millie and Desperado backstage.

"I go up and pet her," says Bernstein.

"I give her a kiss. We, all of us singers, we all wish each other the best before a performance. I actually at the last rehearsal I said, 'It’s going to be a lot of fun, Millie. Just be calm. Just be very good out there.'" 

“Out there” means floodlights, a live orchestra, a packed stage and 2,900 people in the audience.

Millie and Desperado appear in all three scenes in "Act One." In fact, they enjoy more stage time than some of the actual singers. But unlike the singers, they don’t have understudies.