- Associated Press - Saturday, July 4, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - When Romeo pooped during his first rehearsal with the Des Moines Metro Opera, it was unclear who should clean it up.

The stagehands? Or maybe the trainer waiting in the wings?

Theaters are governed by an elaborate set of traditions and rules, but none of them at the Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola covered this particular dilemma. So after a brief debate, the task fell to the props crew because it was decided that, technically, the horse is a prop - and so is whatever he produces, The Des Moines Register (https://dmreg.co/1JxGJPn ) reported.

When the white-maned, copper-splotched Romeo made his operatic debut last month, the second night of the company’s new season, he briefly stole the scene from the leading lady who rode him. And she is OK with that: It’s part of the fun of performing with real animals.

“I’m wielding a gun, singing at the top of my lungs on horseback - you know, the usual,” the Chicago soprano Alexandra “Lexi” LoBianco said.

Romeo handled himself well on the big night - not counting a little slobber - but theater folks from other companies around town tell tales of animals that didn’t show quite the same grace under pressure. The more legs a performer can break for good luck, the more things can go wrong.

In the new revival of “The Girl of the Golden West,” the world’s first spaghetti Western, LoBianco rides Romeo across the stage in the third act, on her way to rescue her lover from a hangman’s noose.

It’s a tense moment, and loud, so the Des Moines Metro Opera, like most companies, went to great lengths to make the experience as easy on the animal as possible. LoBianco spent the last few weeks practicing the routine at the horse’s stomping grounds near Prole, about 10 minutes south of Norwalk.

She dressed in suede chaps, a faux-fur-trimmed duster and a lustrous blond wig tied with a green ribbon on her third visit to the ranch. As she started her vocal warmups - great pealing cries of sound - the horse carried her in a slow circle, barely twitching his ears.

“Nothin’ ” LoBianco said, shaking her head. “This guy is so chill.”

“I think the birds are more stirred up than he is,” said Laurie Abernathy, whose 17-year-old daughter, Brittany, has trained the horse for the last six or seven years. The barn swallows darted helter-skelter among the rafters like hornets shaken from their nest.

LoBianco sang her battle cry, an open-throated “Aaaah!” starting on a high G-sharp, and deftly heeled the horse to quicken his pace.

She had ridden competitively when she was growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, but a decade had passed since she’d gotten back in the saddle.

“I’ve been wanting desperately to get back into riding,” she said.

The opera’s general and artistic director, Michael Egel, found Romeo after making a few calls around town. The 11-year-old gelding has carried flags in parades, run barrel courses in rodeos and performed with a drill team in a dark stadium, wearing a costume of LED lights.

“He’s used to fireworks,” LoBianco explained, so her singing voice doesn’t faze him.

“The horse is a natural,” Egel said. “We’ve extended his part by a few seconds.”

But some animals in the past haven’t been so chill.

Costume designer Connie Peterson recalled a moody donkey in “Suor Angelica,” from Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” back in 2001.

Another tale came from scenic designer R. Keith Brumley, who had once worked with a geriatric cat that gently finished one of its nine lives (offstage) during the run of a show. They had to find an understudy.

At the Des Moines Community Playhouse, Drake University’s late great bulldog mascot Porterhouse and a Chihuahua named Chico Benito Suave Cabron-Storey were doggone angels during their turn in “Legally Blonde.” But the canine rascal who played Sandy during a run of “Annie” once tried to drag its little orphan owner off the stage.

During a four-week run of “Gypsy,” a baby lamb from Living History Farms grew almost too big for the star to hold in her lap. Mice in “Cinderella” gave birth to a squirmy pink litter in the Playhouse costume shop, and a goat in “Mister Roberts” ate a hole in the dressing-room wall.

Another goat, in an Ames Children’s Theater production of “Heidi,” had a tendency to faint without a moment’s notice. “We had no idea goats did that,” producer Carole Horowitz said. “Did it want to play possum? I don’t know. They’re just high-strung.”

The goat never passed out on stage - “It rose to the occasion,” Horowitz said - but there were some touch-and-go moments in the wings.

And then, of course, there was the surprise cameo from a bat during “Fiddler on the Roof” at the now-closed Ingersoll Dinner Theater. It swooped in during the village wedding dance.

“The girl holding my hand had me in a death grip,” actor Steven Hickle said. “She was white as a sheet. She nearly crushed my hand.”

The scene-stealer flapped around the dancers a few times before aiming straight for the rooftop fiddler, who “swatted it like a tennis ball with the back of his violin,” Hickle said. “He didn’t even miss a note.”

Back with the barn swallows in Prole, LoBianco hopped off Romeo and rewarded him with a handful of sugar cubes she’d pilfered from the break table at the theater. From then on, the horse’s long nose followed her coat pocket with an almost hypnotized focus.

He likes root beer and apple slices, too - chunks of which he spit out during his big moment last month.

“He just couldn’t get them chewed quick enough before he went out,” said Brittany Abernathy, the owner.

But at least he hadn’t eaten any hay for several hours beforehand. He didn’t need the extra fiber.


Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com

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