Ollie Takes a Bow—Wow!
A proud dog-mom remembers her bearded collie’s star turn in Verdi’s Falstaff during the 1992–93 Met season. By Stephanie Pierson
My oldest daughter, Megan, was a child supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera in the early ’80s, and my younger daughter, Phoebe, was in the children’s chorus in the late ’80s and early ’90s. My then-husband, Tom, was also part of the Met family, serving as Production Stage Manager for 30 years. Imagine our surprise when our dog, Ollie, who had never seemed particularly theatrically inclined, decided that he, too, wanted a turn onstage.
Ollie, a fluffy bearded collie, played the part of a sheepdog in the third act of Verdi’s Falstaff during the Met’s 1992–93 season (pictured above with Phoebe, who served as his handler onstage). Four arduous rehearsals, nine sold-out performances, and one national television taping (streaming this Friday, July 24). Talent? I’ll say. Even Laurence Olivier didn’t have to play a different breed. But don’t just take it from a besotted stage mother. Take it from Edward Rothstein’s September 28, 1992, New York Times review: “This Falstaff was, minor quibbles aside, exemplary. Its cast was about as good as can be currently gathered.”
Ollie’s stunning animal magnetism, coupled with Tom’s stage managing, helped our pooch “win” this coveted role. No other dog had a chance—literally, since no other dog auditioned.
Not wanting Ollie to have stage fright in front of a full house and not being entirely confident about his professionalism, we signed our divo dog up for an intensive acting class called “Your Pet in Show Biz.” (Bearded collies, though bright and affable, are known to be slightly neurotic. We used to refer to Ollie as a “weirded collie.”) We had high hopes when Ollie and Phoebe were chosen to be demonstrators in this acting class, but it soon became clear that Ollie was more interested in his two miniature-horse classmates than in honing his craft. Simple obedience routines and walk-throughs turned into run-throughs as Ollie would pull Phoebe across the slippery floor to get closer to a terrified Maltese cat auditioning for a Ralph Lauren ad.
No problem. Practice, practice, practice. We conducted a solid two months of private pre-rehearsals at home. Ollie worked like a you-know-what. So did Tom, who stage managed these sessions with a firm hand. And so did Phoebe, who would later enter stage left in Act III, dressed as a star-dusted Magic Fairy, leading Ollie, a bag of doggie treats in her shoe to calm him if necessary.
When rehearsals finally started at the opera house, Ollie took direction and behaved beautifully. Early reviews were mixed, however, his four-legged co-stars. Toots the horse, for example, was nervous and jumpy onstage. Equally unpredictable was Happy the sheep, who had a tendency to bleat when the singers hit a high note. (Happy was actually fired at the dress rehearsal but got re-hired on probation because everyone felt sorry for him.)
The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd—it turned out that Ollie loved it all! He spent his show days at the groomer, then enjoyed a taxi ride to the opera house, where he got his own dressing room, a bowl of water every night from the stagehands, and time with his new friends, Toots and Happy.
How’d it go on Opening Night? Let’s put it this way: Four thousand opera lovers let out a collective “Aaaah!” of surprise and delight when the enchanting Magic Fairy and the radiant white dog took their first steps onstage. But some cast changes were in order: Toots, alas, was replaced mid-run by Cody, a placid opera veteran who had successfully played the horse in the previous season’s production of La Fanciulla del West. Happily, Happy stopped bleating and became an integral part of the ensemble.
Of course, the theater is full of unexpected drama. Happy and Ollie’s budding friendship, unbeknownst to anyone, turned into a mad crush on Happy’s part. Before every performance, Happy would follow Ollie around backstage, with Ollie acting, well ... sheepish. Tragedy struck one Saturday matinee when Happy, who could no longer contain himself, stopped munching his corn, got up stealthily, walked over, and stepped on Ollie’s head. Ollie, taken by surprise at this loving but misguided gesture, stood up, and let out a loud basso profundo bark and a couple of yelps as the audience laughed and Happy was escorted offstage.
Director Franco Zeffirelli’s magic forest wasn’t just a hotbed of romance, it was also deep and dark. In one memorable performance, Ollie mistook a small boy in a toadstool costume for a real toadstool and lifted his leg as the Magic Fairy hurried him away.
Live stage animals add excitement, drama, realism, wonder, and charm to the operatic proceedings.” Ollie did all that but also added a certain fear factor to the mix. Thanks to his unbridled enthusiasm and boyish unpredictability, he became known backstage as “the dog most likely to jump into the orchestra pit.” And so when that run of Falstaff ended, so did Ollie’s nascent opera career. His theatrical ambitions nipped in the bud, Ollie retired to the role he was born to play: a much-loved, spoiled-rotten dog with a small but devoted fan club and a lot of happy memories.