What Is It? Objects That Help Make Opera Magic.

The Tales of Hoffmann (2002); Photo: Robert Millard

The Tales of Hoffmann (2002); Photo: Robert Millard

Have you ever wondered – “How’d they do that?” Opera brings stories to life, and the magic you see on stage is often the result of incredible ingenuity on the part of our behind-the-scenes artisans. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite objects used in productions—old and new, both onstage and off—to give you a glimpse at what’s involved in staging the operas you love.

Can you guess what these objects are for? (The answers are below, but no cheating!)


  1. The torches we use onstage have a name that references a crucial safety feature. What are these props called?
  2. Butane-Bufer
  3. Dead Man’s Torch
  4. Burnless Bunsen
  5. Touchable Torch

Reed Gouger

  1. This highly specialized device is a critical tool for certain members of the orchestra. What does it do?
  2. Reed Gouger
  3. Baton Lathe
  4. Percussionist’s Light
  5. Tuba Turner

Curling Iron Stove

  1. This object has been used for almost every one of our productions. What is it?
  2. Sumerian Gong
  3. Coyote Anvil
  4. Curling Iron Stove
  5. Curtain Retraction Magnet

Wind Machine

  1. This contraption may not look high-tech, but it creates quite a stir behind the scenes. What sound effect does it generate?
    1. Thunder
    2. Galloping Horse
    3. Train on Tracks
    4. Wind


  1. Chiffon and other delicate fabrics are notoriously hard to sew. What is the name of the European device used to ensure a tidy skirt hem without damaging the fabric?
    1. Markenheimer
    2. Fadomat
    3. Chiffoneuse
    4. Delicate Accugage

Fake Blood

  1. Fake blood, like what’s contained in this packet, is essential to the success of any death scene, but getting the blood to look real is tricky. Which of these food components is the hallmark of quality stage blood?
    1. Sugar
    2. Corn Syrup
    3. Ketchup
    4. Gelatin


Find out how you did.

  1. Answer: B. Dead Man’s Torch

The Dead Man’s Torch was created by our very own technical director, Jeff Kleeman. Later patented, this solid-fuel, self-extinguishing, handheld torch has since been adapted by opera and theater companies worldwide. If an actor accidentally drops the torch, faints or “dies” onstage, the torch extinguishes itself. Hence, the “Dead Man” title.

  1. Answer: A. Reed Gouger

Oboe and bassoon reeds are thin strips of cane that vibrate to produce sound. Reeds can be bought off the shelf, but professional almost always prefer to make their own, tailoring them to fit the size and shape of their lips or to create the tonal quality they prefer. Reeds are very delicate, lasting only for a week or two at the most, so making reeds is an ongoing task.

  1. Answer: C. Curling Iron Stove

Our wig and makeup team fashions all of our moustaches and beards out of pre-curled, textured human or yak hair. The stove is used to heat up the small curling irons used to form the natural Marcel-styled waves that shape the beard to each artist’s face. To perfect the look, the team turns to what we call a “toothpick iron” (named for its miniscule size) to add bend and curl.

  1. Answer: D. Wind

The wind machine is a 4-foot-wide drum that looks like a riverboat wheel. When a stagehand cranks the wheel, wooden blades drag across canvas, creating a wind-like sound effect. This machine can make the sound of several different types of wind – from gale-force gusts to a gentle breeze – helping to set the scene and fuel the drama in our productions.

  1. Answer: B. Fadomat

A staple of couture fashion and costume shops alike, the Fadomat facilitates working with chiffon and other delicate fabrics needed to create costumes that bring characters to life on the stage. This freestanding contraption uses fine thread and a delicate needle to effortlessly insert small thread markings along a level hemline while a garment is being worn. The hem is then sewn and the Fadomat’s thread markings are removed, leaving no permanent marks.

  1. Answer: B. Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is the base for most fake blood, but several other ingredients also go into making it both believable and simple to remove, including food coloring and occasionally even a little laundry soap. Soap is used so the stain will launder out of the costume more easily. Sometimes the blood is applied ahead of the scene, and sometimes it appears onstage from blood packets hidden under a garment.

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One Response to What Is It? Objects That Help Make Opera Magic.

  1. Lisa Rowley says:

    “Baton Lathe” – ha ha ha – that was fun and informative!

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