In the Firing Line

Henrietta Bredin goes backstage at the Royal Opera House and finds a stash of weaponry

The Spectator, 17 April 2010

I am standing outside a heavily reinforced metal door somewhere in the furthest flung recesses of the labyrinthine corridor-tangle backstage at the Royal Opera House. A painted shield has the word Armoury picked out on it in gold lettering and next to a no smoking warning is a sign saying 'No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.' The door swings ponderously open to reveal the possessor of this somewhat macabre sense of humour, chief armourer Rob Barham. He is not a small man and his lair seems to fit around him like a tortoise shell, leaving him the minimum of space in which to manoeuvre. Built-in shelves bristle with tiny models of Napoleonic cavalry, replica pistols and revolvers hang from the walls, a slithering bundle of spears is propped up in a corner, row upon row of books and specialist magazines carry titles ranging from Women Warlords and Prussian Line Infantry 1792-1815 to Mastering the Samurai Sword and Arms and Armour of the English Civil Wars. Around a corner, under a neck-crickingly low ceiling, his two colleagues, Kate Bebbington and Zoe Kreuger, are busy punching holes into thick straps of leather to make sword belts.

There are only two other theatres in the UK with working armouries, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (think of all those history plays). At the Royal Opera ouse, Rob and his team have to provide the most extraordinary range of kit, from ceremonial tribal daggers for Aida to lightweight rapiers for the dancers in Romeo and Juliet; from longbows for William Tell to authentic-looking firearms for Puccini's La fanciulla del West whose heroine, Minnie, learns the hard way that you can't get a man with a gun.

Attempting to take all this in, I nearly knock a brass-handled knife onto the floor. There are in fact two of them, almost identical, one with a retracting blade, for Tosca to plunge harmlessly into Scarpia's ribs as he plots to have his wicked way with her. Rob's working on that one as the spring broke during rehearsal, causing the blade (safely blunted) to fly across the room, causing a combination of hilarity and alarm. Safety is absolutely paramount with all the weapons in his care. Anyone working in the armoury department has to undergo a police check and at least one member of the team has to attend any performance involving weaponry. Breaking blades was an ongoing problem with Romeo and Juliet, where the warring Capulets and Montagues have a carefully choreographed stage fight which depends for its effect, not only on the spectacle but also on the sound of clashing swords. 'Steel blades get hairline cracks and they can fracture,' says Rob. 'With dancers on stage and musicians in the pit, we obviously can't have that. It took a long period of trial and error to get the right solution. We use fencing epées now, the same type that are used in competitions, but made out of a dralon-aluminium mix that's light to carry and makes a good, ringing sound. Also it dents, but doesn't snap too easily.'

The most famous sword in opera is probably Nothung, in Wagner's Ring. Pulled from the trunk of a tree by Siegmund in Die Walküre, its broken pieces have to be forged together again by his son Siegfried, during the next opera in the cycle. Rob is now on his fourth complete Ring and says that the most recent one caused a fair number of headaches for both him and his colleagues in the props department, who were responsible for a crystal sword - based on one from the Lord of the Rings films - that took months to perfect.

In common with the heads of all the making departments at the Royal Opera House, Rob has a comprehensive memory of old shows which might be possible to raid for new productions, along with a reliable network of suppliers, in his case, replica weaponry specialists like Battle Orders in Sussex and gunsmiths Henry Kranks in Yorkshire, who made 20 rifles for recent performances of Carmen. When Battle Orders had to close down some of its operations, Rob was able to buy up some of its stock and has a crate of swords to show for it that will come into their own during a new production of Tannhäuser. In La fille du regiment, the rifles are deactivated originals - not precisely correct, to his evident regret, but close enough. 'The style's right but they should really be about six inches longer. We got them for Giovanna d'Arco a few years back and they've been used for Trovatore as well, so they were a pretty good investment.'

While a fight director will be responsible for staging action sequences, Rob is often the person who tries to help performers look as if they are actually used to handling weapons. That can be made easier by making sure that the gun or dagger, and its holster or baldrick, look properly worn with use. People coming into the armoury often ask why there's a belt lying on the floor. 'It's usually because I'm deliberately kicking and scuffing it about the place,' explains Rob.

The ROH is able to offer apprenticeships in some of its departments and in the armoury that means that Rob offers on-the-job experience while the apprentice has the additional opportunity to attend training courses in leatherwork, blacksmithing and woodwork. There's also currently an apprentice scenic artist on a shared arrangement with the National Theatre, a scenic metalworker and a costume maker, all learning their trades from the inside.

Rob often has to reassure people who are understandably wary, particularly about guns. The Cunning Little Vixen has a lot of children in the cast and he always goes to rehearsal to show them how the shooting of the Vixen is managed. 'I stand there,' he says, 'and get whoever's singing the poacher, Harasta, to re-enact that scene and shoot me in the back. Then they can see that I've survived the experience.' Tosca seems to be an opera that attracts accidents and some years ago the unfortunate tenor, Fabio Armiliato, notoriously got shot in the leg during a performance in Italy. When he came to sing in the opera at Covent Garden, Rob made absolutely sure to meet him, show him the guns that the firing squad would aim at him in the last act, and demonstrate how the barrels are sealed at the ends and pierced at the sides so there was absolutely no danger of him being hurt.

Noise is a particular issue with gunfire; making sure that it's loud enough to sound authentic but not so loud that it deafens the performers. Better loud than non-existent though. I did once witness a performance (not at the Royal Opera House) of Don Carlos, where the fatal gunshot fired by a mysterious assailant failed to ring out at the crucial moment, obliging the poor baritone singing Rodrigo to collapse in mortal agonies for no apparent reason whatsoever.