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Donkey Diva Gets ‘Avatar’ Power for 3D Appearance on Big Screen

When Pollyanne the donkey trots onto the set of the Royal Opera’s “Carmen,” she never fails to provoke a coo of appreciation from the audience. Now her appearance is reaching out further than before. Straight out of a movie screen, in fact. The purveyors of “Avatar” are making her part of the world’s first 3D opera.

The Royal Opera is filming Francesca Zambello’s handsome production, to be broadcast globally in the fall, and has teamed with RealD Inc, the 3D cinema technology provider behind James Cameron’s Oscar-winning film as well as Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

It stars mezzo Christine Rice and tenor Bryan Hymel in addition to the limelight-loving donkey -- who isn’t the only animal in the cast who will enjoy digital fame. There’s also Louis, a handsome dark 14-year-old Fresian horse who is a firm favorite with audiences. Although the two are operatic rivals onstage, they are fortunately the best of friends backstage.

“He stamps his feet whenever he sees Pollyanne,” says Kay Weston of Animal Ambassadors, the company which supplies Louis to the Royal Opera. “Then he neighs, and Pollyanne replies with a bray. They adore each other.”

As if on cue, over in her separate backstage pen Pollyanne starts huffing and snuffling as if she’s about to sneeze. Her lips quiver and her silky ears stand bolt upright. Then she lets out an almighty “ee-oor”.

Her ears flop back, and she blinks her big brown eyes. She seems very pleased with her performance. So does Louis, who taps his hoof approvingly.

Outsinging Domingo

Placido Domingo once said with admiration that Pollyanne was the only creature he knew who could outsing him. If Pollyanne chooses to bray again during one of the two performances being filmed for 3D, her contribution will be heard from San Francisco to Singapore. RealD has equipped more than 5,000 cinemas in 51 countries with 3D capability.

Louis, Pollyanne and a clutch of well-behaved chickens have a lot to do in the production. The bullfighter Escamillo rides in to sing his famous Toreador’s Song on Louis’s back, and later Carmen arrives side-saddle on him to see the bullfight in Act 4. Pollyanne, fitted with panniers, adds local color to the town square in Act 1, and appears suitably stealthy for the smugglers’ scene in Act 3.

It’s all delightful, and will no doubt look terrific on screen. Is it fair, though, to exploit the animals like this?

Entrance Cue

“They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t enjoy it,” says Weston. “Louis is a real show-off. His chest swells out when he goes on stage, and you can see how proud he looks. He knows the piece so well now that he nods his head to remind the handler when he hears his entrance cue.”

Stage manager Emily Gottlieb says that the animals are better treated even than the singers. “And I think we treat the singers pretty well here,” she adds quickly.

This will not be Louis’s first screen appearance. He’s often seen in films, adverts and pop videos. What makes him so suitable for performance work?

“He’s got the right spirit,” says Weston. “He’s very confident on stage, and loves all the attention.”

Pollyanne and the chickens come from John McLaren’s Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary. I mention to McLaren, a gentle-spoken countryman, that playing Mozart to cows improves their milk yield. Does Bizet encourage the chickens to lay more eggs?

“I can’t say it does,” he answers, while tenderly stroking Pollyanne’s soft fringe. “They lay plenty as it is. Last year one of the chorus took a tray of them, and made vanilla ice-cream for the whole company.”

Slaughter Market

When McLaren rescued Pollyanne from a slaughter market in 1997, her feet were badly crippled with neglect and she had a vicious temper. He healed her, and now says that she’s one of the sweetest and most biddable creatures on his farm: “That’s why she’s perfect for opera and film. She’s so gentle, and loves being around humans.”

What about the chickens? Does he have to audition them too for their operatic and cinematic work? “Yes. I’ve got to choose ones who like being handled, and who are calm. Not all chickens would like it.”

Later in the show I see a chorus member dressed as an authentically blowsy Spanish gypsy, all cleavage and earrings, scoop up one of the birds. She clutches it to her bosom while Carmen sings about the “rebellious bird called love.” A lesser animal would no doubt stand upon its dignity. McLaren’s chicken behaves with the unruffled calm of a dowager duchess.

Does the presence of so many animals make life more difficult for the stage management team?

“No,” says Gottlieb. “The procedures are all based on common sense, and a vet from the local council comes to check that they’re OK.”

Does she like working with animals? “Yes, I do. I even kept a chicken myself once. You won’t believe what its name was. Carm-hen.”

The Royal Opera’s 3D “Carmen” looks sure to win over as many animal lovers as it does opera lovers.

The Royal Opera’s production of “Carmen” is in repertoire through June 26. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

For information about Pollyanne and John McLaren’s Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary: http://www.donkeyrescue.co.uk

For information about Animal Ambassadors: http://www.animalambassadors.co.uk

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

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