Though they make only a five-minute cameo appearance, eight local children who play the enchanted animals in the Washington Opera's production of "The Magic Flute" are in many ways the most memorable of its masterfully whimsical characters.
Giant, fanciful creatures charmed by the flute-wielding Prince Tamino, they waddle, slither and wiggle in the limelight, wearing some of the most elaborately designed costumes ever made for this Mozart opera.
Looking fit for a forest ball, outdressing even Dr. Doolittle's Hollywood menagerie, they are high-tech, mechanized beasts who make the standing-room-only audience at the Kennedy Center erupt into laughter at the slightest twitch.
And that's the point, according to costume and set designer Zack Brown.
As Mozart's famous story goes, Prince Tamino exhorts the mystical animals, all strange hybrids of earthly critters under Brown's creative hand, to accompany the prince in his quest for his lost love, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. Under the spell of the flute, the animals follow, entranced.
For K.C. Swieconek, 8, of Annapolis, it means inching along as the shimmering pink snail, while sister Malia, 10, bobs the head of her panthelot, a panther-ocelot combination. Her other sister, Kristen, 13, as a cross between an ostrich and an emu, moves her delicate beak to the beat of the prince's aria.
"I want to be an actress," said Kristen, "or a veterinarian."
The children, most of them experienced supernumeraries, operate the mechanized structures through levers and pulleys in the bellies of their beasts.
As the crockagator, Seth Pukatch, 12, has to lie face down on a giant skateboard, pedal with his feet and pull with his hands.
Though he complains of blisters on his toes, he says it's worth it.
"It's a lot of fun seeing how an opera is set up and just seeing the characters," Seth said.
It's tricky stuff. During dress rehearsal, the chimpaboon's tail got stuck in a scenery track, and the panthelot capsized and couldn't recover. "It's a big joke that the panthelot died on stage," Malia said with a laugh.
A freckled Solomon Gezari, 7, of Chevy Chase, plays a turtoise-turtle crossbreed in his first stage performance. "It turns out I'm not nervous. When I get stuck in the cracks, I just jerk myself out like this," he said, moving his body wildly.
On any other stage in any other city, these youngsters would be dressed in standard animal suits. But Brown, 41, whose hallmark is some of the most innovative designs in the industry, would hear nothing of that. And for good reason.
"In this age, you're always competing with the Muppets and such," Brown said. "We wanted something that was easy to operate and was fanciful."
So he made them giant mechanical wonders, some of them nine feet tall, then draped them in metallic fabrics "to make them unreal -- animals you wouldn't normally see."
So impressive were the designs that four other opera companies wanted to rent them before his sketches were even complete.
He first drew pictures of "child-sized people inside the costumes" to estimate the height requirements. Then he sent his designs to a studio in New York that took six months to execute them.
The animals took up one-fourth of the total costume budget.
Then came the casting ordeal.
Though as extras the children are paid only $10 a performance, 200 re'sume's flooded in, according to Carol Pierson, the production assistant who cast the children.
She made her choices, she said, based on standard requirements such as height, age and performance experience.
The children had to attend rehearsals during the holidays, come in at a moment's notice and be able to juggle schoolwork too, she said.
Malia, a five-year veteran of the stage at age 10, took the workloadin stride. She does her homework in the car or "sends notes to school" explaining that the stage schedule is packed that week.
Philip Hodges, 9, of Georgetown, said he likes being in the opera, which continues for several more weeks, but minds doing without some things, like watching the "Simpsons" on television.
"I miss too much," he said. "Like today, I could have gone to the Bullets basketball game."
Ah, the high price of playing the back end of a black velvet panthelot with purple polka dots.