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Snakes on a Dame: Operanation's Slithery Shoot
Canadian Opera Company Soprano Ambur Braid tangles with snakes to promote COC's biggest party of the year

Photos by Ryan Emberley

Soprano Ambur Braid hissed at the Pinstripe Ball Python that slithered across her hand. “Don’t hurt yourself!” She was worried about its skin getting scratched by her enormous ring.

Braid canoodled with snakes as part of a late-night photo shoot last night to promote the Canadian Opera Company’s Operanation 10. The massive party, now in its 10th year, is a fundraising endeavor for the COC’s Ensemble Studio training program. Since Alexander Neef became General Director, the COC has made a concerted effort to reach out to a younger audience. Last year, Operanation paired contemporary performers like Nelly Furtado and the Arkells with more traditional singers from the ensemble.

Last night’s photo shoot was loosely based around concepts of temptation and envy, with nods to Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Braid is a brave subject. Earlier this month she conquered her fear of heights by riding atop a flying machine in Opera Atelier’s The Magic Flute. “The flying thing is still not awesome,” she admitted. “I was crying in the machine and singing”. This is her first time having a live snake crawl across her face.

Liam Grin, from Menagerie Pet Shop, was the snake wrangler AKA boa fluffer AKA ‘reptile manager’. The snakes were (somewhat alarmingly) transported to the Henry N. R. Jackman Lounge in a simple canvas bag.  The snakes, a 6-ft Columbian boa and a 4-ft pinstripe ball python, were sober — Neef wondered if they had been ‘sedated’ for the shoot. They had not. The languid snakes require less maintenance than most houseplants. They eat once a week, go to the bathroom once a week and are, according to Grin, “the perfect kids’ pet”.

They don’t love being handled per se, but they tolerate it. “I don’t think they wake up in the morning and want to cuddle,” said Grin thoughtfully. They likely won’t bite Braid unless she steps on them or makes a jabbing motion at their faces. Grin assured that the bite is no worse than a cat scratch, but admittedly a bit more startling.

“Did we cover how the snake feels about multiple flashes?” asked JJ Thompson, the photographer. Braid wore a long emerald gown. She warmed to the boa quickly, petting him like a kitten. “He’s adorable!” she said definitively. “Oooh! He’s getting in my clavicle,” she squealed as the snake slid under her dress. “He’ll work it out. It takes a while for men to figure me out,” she joked.

“Very Medusa! She looks great,” shouted creative director Paul Grundy as the boa coiled up into her hair. She’s handled the onslaught remarkably well.

“I was a model back in the day. A horrible one. I know where my faults lie,” she laughed.

During a break, Braid managed to sit down for a minute. This is her “day off.” The Terrace, BC, native performs, rehearses and trains six days a week. During a performance of Tito she contracted pneumonia and sung her way through it, landing in hospital, “But I didn’t lose my voice!”

She also manages the business side of things — she booked 19 flights last week. “Here (at COC) I’ve been working with the best conductors and directors and singers in the world. I love being around people that are so incredibly talented. That’s what inspires me. I want to be pushed on a daily basis to do better. No resting on your laurels and having an attitude. There’s always work to do.”

Operanation 10 runs on October 24, 2013. Read more about Ambur here. 


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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