When German tenor Jonas Kaufmann took to the stage of The Metropolitan Opera House recently for his role as Dick Johnson in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” he looked every bit the confident, gun-slinging bandit that the part requires.
It was an important moment for Kaufmann. His return to The Met last October was widely anticipated. Multiple withdrawals from other productions had contributed to a 4½-year absence. So, audience members were on the edge of their seats, waiting for a first glimpse of the opera star. To complicate matters, Kaufmann had to make his entrance atop a live horse.
Luckily, after a few preliminary trips to the Bronx, he was more than equipped to take the reins, so to speak.
At the Bronx Equestrian Center Inc. in Pelham Bay Park, instructor Kiara “Kiki” Esperanza was given the task to ready him. Over several lessons, Esperanza worked with Kaufmann and his co-star — the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek — to mount, dismount and achieve the posture and confidence it would take to pull it all off.
“Posture is a big thing in riding,” Esperanza says. “And another big part was getting (the actors) on and off the horse.”
The Bronx Equestrian Center is on Shore Road, leading to City Island and is one of the borough’s few horse stables. Indeed, it’s the “only place, apart from Brooklyn, that offers trail rides” near Manhattan, Esperanza says. That proximity means the equestrian center is on the radar of New York City’s entertainment industry.
“They weren’t my first actors,” Esperanza says. But they were especially dedicated, even braving inclement weather. “They didn’t want to cancel,” she adds. “They still rode in the rain and got soaked.”
Puccini’s opera about the American West was adapted from a play by David Belasco — the theatrical impresario perhaps best-known for adapting the short story “Madame Butterfly” into a play that became another Puccini opera — and takes place in a Californian miners’ camp during the mid-1800s. The opera may have premiered more than half a century before the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s but one could argue that it’s a precursor to the cinematic subgenre introduced by Sergio Leone.
And what’s a western without horses?
In the Bronx, the actors trained on two veteran mares — Westbroek on the gentle Rebecca and Kaufmann on the oft-used Mystic.
“They did good,” Esperanza says of the actors. “They even trotted around the (outdoor) arena on their own.” The urban/natural hybrid location didn’t seem to matter. “Mystic is really tolerant,” she says. “Loud noises don’t bother her.”
Lately, Mystic has been a busy girl. Her white coat and mane make her a candidate for circus-related acting roles. Though she’s not one to brag, she had a part in recent film “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman.
In the film, Mystic can be seen wearing a jaunty feather. “They wanted her to canter and circle but it didn’t work because they had no barrier,” Esperanza says of the movie set. “She can’t run in an invisible circle.”
Though the film may look great on her résumé, stardom hasn’t gone to Mystic’s head. She recently made an appearance leading the Bronx Equestrian Center crew at the Eastchester St. Patrick’s Day parade.
In the actual production of “La Fanciulla del West” at The Met, however, the horses are sourced from All Tame Animals, an animal talent agency that provides talent for stage, film, advertising and special events. The talent pool is varied. There are lions hired for still work, cockroaches for TV and elephants for Hindu weddings. All Tame is also the sole provider of animals for The Met stage. Owner Nancy Novograd has continued to supply the equine cast members for The Met after Claremont Riding Academy (her late husband Paul’s family business) closed in 2007. Claremont was the last public riding stable in Manhattan. She’s known Marcy Brennen, the vice president and face of the Bronx Equestrian Center, for a long time, so it was natural for The Met stars to train at a place that’s about more than horses.
On a recent morning at the center, as two geldings in an outdoor paddock reared up on hind legs — they were just horsing around — a cat snoozing on the doorstep and a 9-month-old rooster named Finn bobbed just inside. We were greeted by Onyx, a sweetheart of a Pitbull who shadowed us as we checked on some of her friends. On this particular day, the center had 15 trail horses and about 13 boarding horses.
There was the curious Hidalgo, who wouldn’t stop staring and Mavis and Blue, who like to argue from their two stalls opposite each other. There’s a pony named Madonna, because her tall hoofs look like high heels. And then there’s Tyson, a former police horse who used to be named Maximus until he bit off another horse’s ear. Nearby was Fluffy, the black long-haired rabbit, who kept escaping her stall.
Esperanza was preparing a mare, Moonshine, to meet with her prospective new owner. Moonshine (so named for the two vertical white stripes that cut through her dark body and part of her mane) is a recent transplant to New York from Wyoming. Esperanza was running her through a few jumps and examining her new shoes before the important meeting.
The Bronx Equestrian Center provides all custom horse services, has more than 40 stalls for boarding and works with instructors that teach both Western and English riding styles for all levels.
Though nature abounds in this quirky neighborhood that sits on the Long Island Sound, its urban setting is undeniable. Turkeys, deer and coyote run wild and the spring bird migration is something to behold. But look in the distance over the cityscape to the Throgs Neck Bridge and two distinct cultures blur. If you strain enough, you might think you hear the orchestra cue up at Lincoln Center over the clip-clopping sound of hooves.
For more, visit nychorse.com.