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A stunt in which a performer, walking on stilts, breathes fire in the Lyric Opera's latest production left the actor, President Truman's great-grandson, with second-degree burns.

Lyric’s risky fire-breathing stunt backfires

by Bryan Lowry
Feb 5, 2013

Opera smoking

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

A sign outside the Civic Opera House forbids smoking within 25 feet of the entrance. A fire department spokesman confirmed this policy is for both health and safety concerns.

The Chicago Fire Department approved a stunt the Lyric Opera inserted into its production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurenberg,” in which a performer, walking on stilts, uses a flammable liquid to spew fire in an ensemble scene set in a Renaissance town. 

That actor, 24-year-old Wesley Daniel, a descendent of President Truman, is expected to go home Thursday after being treated in the burn unit at Loyola University Medical Center, following a mishap Monday afternoon during a dress rehearsal. 

A news release from the Lyric provided an update on his condition:

“Wesley Daniel, who was injured yesterday in a rehearsal at Lyric Opera of Chicago, is likely to return home Thursday.

“Clifton Daniel, Wesley's father, spoke directly with Lyric's deputy general director Drew Landmesser this morning. He told Landmesser that Wesley will likely be home on Thursday, and although he has second degree burns around his mouth, his throat and lungs are fine. Daniel is being treated at Loyola Medical Center. The effect was approved by the Chicago Fire Department.”

Daniel’s father is the grandson of President Harry Truman and works at Truman College in Uptown.

The Lyric declined to comment further on the incident.

Larry Langford of the Chicago Fire Department explained the Lyric demonstrated the stunt last Friday for the Fire Prevention Bureau, which ruled the stunt to be safe. He could not say whether or not Daniel had been the one to demonstrate the effect.

“The effect required the use of a flammable liquid like alcohol. It was considered safe if done properly,” he said. Langford said that the bureau’s job in cases like this is to determine whether pyrotechnic effects have the potential to cause a fire in the theater if something goes wrong, which he noted was not a possibility in this case.

“Injury to the performer is always a possibility if the operator makes a mistake,” he said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that another performer had a mishap attempting the same effect a week earlier. Langford could not confirm the validity of this statement, and said that he checked the department’s incident records but could find no record of a response to the Lyric from the previous week.

The fire department will not be investigating the incident. “Cause and origin here is quite simple. It was an accident,” Langford said.

Daniel graduated from Roosevelt University in the spring of 2012 with a bachelor’s in fine arts with a concentration in theater, according to a spokeswoman for the university. The university offers circus acts training as part of its theater curriculum, but that does not include fire-breathing.

Daniel's agent, Jess Jones of Grossman & Jack Talent, Inc., could not say where Daniel learned fire-breathing but confirmed that the skill was listed on his resume along with walking on stilts, knife and fire juggling and static trapeze skills.

"He's immersed in these physical challenges," Jones said.

Jones said that she had corresponded with Daniel via email and that he was  in good spirits, already optimistic about recovering from the accident. Jones described being drawn to Daniel when she saw him perform another small ensemble part with with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater shortly after his graduation. She called him magnetic.

"He really had been looking forward to working at the Lyric," she said of her client's anticipation for this production.

A sign outside the Civic Opera House that is home to the Lyric forbids smoking within 25 feet of the entrance. Langford confirmed that this policy was for a combination of health and safety, but that performers had been given permission by the fire department to smoke cigarettes on stage in the past.

The fire department rarely approves pyrotechnics and sustained open flames, in particular, are not allowed, according to Langford. The effect at the Lyric was considered brief and safe enough to be approved.

There is no fire-breather included in the book of “Die Meistersinger von Nurenberg” and this inclusion was likely an artistic flourish, according to Jason Tramm, a professor at Seton Hall University who serves as artistic director of the New Jersey State Opera.

“Real fire may not have been worth the risk to the artist,” said Tramm. He noted that a recent staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a work for which fire is central to the plot, used projections rather than actual flames at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Steven Mosteller, a professor of opera at DePaul University who previously worked as a conductor for the New York City Opera, was more sympathetic to the Lyric.

“The stage is a dangerous place,” he said. “Something went wrong. It’s a part of large theater.” Mosteller said that in his experience effects and stunts that have been practiced and tested sometimes go wrong for unexpected reasons such as a change in air pressure.

Mosteller noted that other productions of “Die Meistersinger von Nurenberg” have staged this scene with acrobats and jugglers, but that pyrotechnics have been used in some cases. He described the scene as a spectacle involving hundreds of performers, and said that each director brings a unique interpretation.

The opera opens Friday with fire-breathing no longer included.