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Steinberg: Lyric fire stunt right idea done wrong

Updated: March 7, 2013 6:35AM



Breathing fire is not all that difficult.

“Once you get the hang of it, it’s a very easy thing to do,” said Irene Hochgraf Cameron, 20, a Chicago-born fire performer now living in Michigan. “Maybe it takes as much skill as blowing into a horn.”

The fire breather takes a swig of flammable substance, such as lamp oil, then exhales it over an open flame, such as a torch.

Despite the old trick’s simplicity, “accidents often happen,” and “you have to make sure you’re not doing anything stupid,” said Hochgraf Cameron, who burned both legs badly this summer while attempting a trick.

Wesley Daniel, the 24-year-old stilt-walker in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” is well-trained, but the plume of fire he blew seemed to draw back into his face at dress rehearsal Monday afternoon, burning him around the mouth and throat.

I was watching in the audience, preparing to write for today about Wagner’s music. But we’ll have to save that for Friday. With this fiery mishap — Daniel is scorched but going to be OK — in the headlines, it would feel strange to talk about E-flat tonic chords and ignore a story echoing across the country.

“Can you find out whose idea the stilt-fire breather was?” writes Dr. B. Wollman, of Washington state. “There is no call in this opera for such . . . the Lyric Meistersinger accident was totally unnecessary and a distraction from the opera itself.”

I don’t know about that. Sometimes a little distraction is welcome. Great art is often a blend of high and low. The most delicate Japanese haiku turns out to be about drinking contests. The grand words of Shakespeare are interspersed with swordfights and low puns — when Hamlet talks about “country matters,” he isn’t talking about farming.

So I can’t see why all the earnest musings about song in “Meistersinger” shouldn’t have been jazzed up with some carnival fun as the production ends its fifth hour. The final scene takes place at a song contest — basically a Teutonic version of “American Idol” — and having been at two previous rehearsals last week, I was looking forward to the jugglers and the fire breather as a diversion and a sign that the end was inching into view.

It wasn’t a bad call, artistically — particularly when dealing with Wagner, whose major work is silly with forges and flames.

But obviously whoever made the safety assessment overlooked something vital. Somebody’s job was to see that this was safe to do, and whoever that is screwed up in ways that may have been predictable. First, because they already had one fire mishap last week. Second because experienced fire breathers know adding stilts makes it more perilous.

“Absolutely,” Hochgraf Cameron said. “You have to be blowing up at a 45 degree angle, then the blowback is above your head rather than in your face. You’re off balance and if you’re not well-grounded, and you’re putting fuel next to your face. . . . You do something on stilts, and you’re adding a whole layer of instability. That makes it a lot harder.”

“I’ve been around this a lot, and I’ve never seen anyone do it on stilts before,” said Philip Earl Johnson, a performer at Bristol’s Renaissance Faire, explaining that fire breathers often wipe their lips with a wet cloth immediately after expelling flame, to remove fuel from their faces.“If you’re on those stilts, you only have two hands — one hand on the bottle and one hand on the torch,” he said. “On the ground, you can set the bottle down.”

Another factor might have been the ventilation in the theater — earlier in the show, patrons were complaining of cold drafts and putting on their jackets. An errant breeze could have contributed to the accident.

“The wind factor is extremely important,” said Liz Campanella, manager of Pyrotechniq in Chicago. “That has the ability to shift where fire is going. If there’s movement in the air, it can change direction.”

Like you, I want safety, but don’t want to live in a padded SafetyWorld, where every move is weighed against any theoretical peril. Part of what makes something dramatic on stage is the perceived danger — whether a flame or a crashing chandelier or whatever. When it comes to opera, I want my “Aida” with real elephants. Who doesn’t?

But it’s supposed to be fake, not actual danger. It was wrong to put a stunt on stage that hasn’t had all the kinks worked out, and the Lyric is correct — if tardy — in announcing the fire act will not be part of the production when it opens Friday night.

There’s a fine balance. Don’t be reckless, but don’t have an excess of caution either — no performers setting themselves ablaze, horrifying the audience, but no horned helmets with orange safety balls stuck onto the points, because you could put an eye out.

Or as Hochgraf Cameron said:

“What can you do without taking a risk? When you stand up, you risk falling over.”



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