Who knew Denis was to be an opera star?
In 2007 the National Concert Hall in Dublin were showcasing Carmen the Opera, for one of their market scenes they wanted a real life donkey to complete the authenticity. This is where Denis comes in. We were honoured to be asked to provide a donkey for the stage when there are countless donkeys on the island of Eire.
Training began immediately with opera playlist CDs being purchased and speakers put into Denis’ stable to get him used to the likes of Pavorotti. He was to wear saddle bags with oranges and lemons and I (at 10 years old) was to dress as a peasant boy.
At first Denis was bemused by the racket, his ears pointed firmly at the source of the music although, after a bucket of feed he quickly forgot about it.
The day before we set off for Dublin, a 100 mile journey, you would have thought we were preparing for a launch to the moon. The Isuzu jeep was full to the brim with only the front seats clear and small space for me in the middle of the back seats. This was before the large dual carriageway and motorways were built connecting the North and the South of Ireland, therefore the journey was going to be an arduous one following twisted paths and minor roads. Following a large folded paper map (we didn’t have sat-nav) and my mother’s directions are unique to say the least it’s a wonder we made it at all.
I remember stopping at a restaurant, The Black Bull, we had been driving for a couple of hours, keeping steady for Denis as he had never spent as long in a trailer for a trip before. We were aching from sitting so long and Dad was getting hungry and subsequently, grumpy. Denis was given a bucket of feed and we had a well deserved meal too.
We had another hour left of driving, leaving us just over an hour of time to prepare at the hall. When we made it within a stone’s throw from it, in the centre of Dublin, we were stumped. We drove around and around the building, searching for the stage entrance, after the third trip round and a few dubious looks from the Gardaí we stopped and beckoned one over.
“How do you get in behind the National Concert Hall?” asked my mother in a noticeable Northern Irish accent. The officer looked back suspiciously at our trailer, and then at us, “...why would you be looking to get there?” Obviously we didn’t look like stage hands, me barely visible amongst all the tack and “essentials”, our horsebox not your typical actor’s vehicle. My mum explained that we had a donkey in the back that was to appear on stage in Carmen, and we needed to get in soon to get ready. The officer peered into the box window and likely Denis stared back with a look that said, “Are we there yet?”. She must have surmised that our story was too far-fetched to be fake and guided us to the hidden back-of-house entrance.
We were shown the stage and maze of corridors that led us from the carpark to the spotlight, a simple farm-boy costume was handed to me and we were given Denis’ saddlebags full of real oranges and lemons. We spotted singers getting into costume and stage hands zooming in and out of sight, all in black. The air was awash with the buzz of singers warming up, musicians tuning their instruments and directors barking orders. It was very exciting.
We had enough time to have a light dinner from Mum’s may premade sandwiches, Denis’ grub was limited as we didn’t want any accidents in front of the crowd. We had debated putting cotton wool down his ears to reduce the sound from the pit spooking him, we decided against it as he seemed calm and the wool only made him shake his head.
Before we knew it the curtain was raised, applause commanded the beginning of the show.
We waited just outside until an assistant director came and led us to the stage entrance and on her command we ascended the steps onto the stage.
The curtain was up already, the spotlights blinding, making it hard to even see the many, many people seated whispering to each other, clearly making up their mind if “that” was a real donkey. We had been briefed to walk to the fore of the stage, nearly on the edge with Denis looking straight into the pit below.
The huge drum began to rumble and the rest of the orchestra began playing, this was the deciding moment to see if Denis could cope. We had our escape plan in mind but from the few steps it was earlier suddenly seemed like a mile. The singers began marching onto the stage singing together, the men were dressed as soldiers and one or two interacted with Denis and I, miming (all while singing) could they take a lemon or an orange. I hadn’t expected this and nodded enthusiastically, not sure if this was part of the script or if the actors genuinely wanted some fruit. Thankfully Denis was more calm than I was, the beat of the music resonated through my feet and it seemed like a dream. Denis stood, his ears twitching in time to the drum, his eyes searching the crowd and watching the singers, taking it all in but, showing no fear.
It was like he criticising their volume, thinking he could do better. Simultaneously the scene seemed to slow down and fly by me. I have no idea how or when I left the stage, I just remember my mother hugging me backstage and us discussing how good Denis was. That he never flinched, he just took it all in stride and looked at us like we were stressing over nothing.
We returned to the trailer, giving Denis a helping of meal and some apples the crew had gifted him. We waited until the end of the show and then were introduced properly to the cast and crew, they all congratulated us on Denis’ behaviour, some even following us back out to meet him in his trailer like a broadway star. Many of the singers were French, Spanish and Italian, with English not their first language. As I asked for autographs on the programme they patted my head and said, “Nice boy, good boy”, with the ladies kissing me on the cheek. I came out of the building bright red, whether from lipstick or blushing it didn’t matter.
The journey home did not seem as long, likely as we recognised the roads this time and we were in no rush. I slept for much of it as we only made it to the border about midnight. I forced myself awake to put Denis to bed, I was so proud of him - still am. He had no idea the world he had opened up for us. We realised that donkeys can achieve anything, it just takes the trust and determination of this animal to do it.