Dressing the Story: A Gallery of Operatic Set Design

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February 2, 2015 by katmcdaniel

Scenery is more than mere background or decoration. It has power to determine our rejection or acceptance of a story.

Public Domain Image via Open Clip Art

Public Domain Image via openclipart

Storytelling began with the human voice. No props, no set, just a trusting relationship between the speaker or singer and the audience, who used their imagination to envision what was being described. Over time, it became more exciting to have the characters acted out. As those characters became more vivid and found their own voices, the narrator was often relegated to a secondary role and even dispensed with entirely. The loss of the storyteller meant that descriptive information had to be communicated in new ways. Scenery, which has been evolving as a theatrical device for centuries, has become a primary vehicle for this information, giving important clues as to the time and place of the action as well as shaping the mood of the piece. It accomplishes this quickly and silently, saving words to communicate the physical and emotional journey of the protagonists rather than employing them in lengthy narrative descriptions. Here are a few production stills from four leading scenic designers of the world of opera, along with quotes from these artists. If you would like to know more about the folks who work closely with directors to design productions, please click on the set designer’s name or any other links included. Josef Svoboda (1920-2002)

When I sit alone in a theatre and gaze into the dark space of its empty stage, I’m frequently seized by fear that this time I won’t manage to penetrate it, and I always hope that this fear will never desert me. Without an unending search for the key to the secret of creativity, there is no creation. It’s necessary always to begin again. And that is beautiful.
–-Josef Svoboda 
Rusalka, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 1958

Rusalka, National Theatre, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1955.

Rusalka, Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 1958

Rusalka, National Theater, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1955

Famous for his multimedia installations, Svoboda was a major technical innovator. He was among the first to combine live actors with film projections and a pioneer in the use of plastics, hydraulics and lasers. He invented lights that were both bright and soft at the same time (click here to see a version currently marketed by Chromlech) and this light became one of his signature effects, capable of remarkable elegance and dreaminess.

Rusalka, National Theatre, Prague, 1991

Rusalka, Dvořák, National Theatre, Prague, 1991

Rusalka,  National Theater, Prague, 1991

Rusalka, Dvořák, National Theater, Prague, 1991

Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsy, Houston Grand Opera, 1982

Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsy, Houston Grand Opera, USA, 1982

A successful set will usually travel between opera houses, either rented or jointly owned, tied to the production for which it was designed and associated with the director of that production. It may be in use for several decades, constantly modified to fit into different theaters. This beautiful set for Verdi’s La Traviata is no exception. The impressionistic, painterly like effect created by the tremendous sloping mirror behind and above the stage is mesmerizing and very much in line with Svoboda’s earlier work. He was always in love with light.
La Traviata, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy. Mirrors mounted at an angle behind and above the set create a beautiful, impressionistic effect.

La Traviata, Verdi, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, 2012

La Traviata, Sferisterio Opera Fetsival (outdoors), 2012

La Traviata, Sferisterio Opera Fetsival (outdoors), 2012

La Traviata, Teatro Comunale, Stagione Lirica, Sassari, Italy, 2013

La Traviata, Teatro Comunale, Stagione Lirica, Sassari, Italy, 2013. Note the mirror above has been sized down to fit the indoor theater.

olandese

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

For me, scenography is like Moby Dick.
–Yannis Kokkos
The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

Like Svoboda, Kokkos is no stranger to elaborate mirrors or projections. His images are sharp edged and akin to those of modern film. Sections of the stage are frequently unlit, creating gaping darkness. Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, designed for the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, is a perfect example. Note the relationship of the helmsman’s wheel to Senta’s spinning wheel and the implications of the closed window reflected over the community.
The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

Many designers use dreamlike images in an attempt to speak directly to the subconscious mind of the viewer. Darkness, light, fog and all sorts of special effects are employed to convey the director’s vision. Even the shape of the deck, or floor, be it flat, sloped (raked), even or uneven, makes an impact. Details draw the eye and simplicity is powerful. Kokkos possesses a fine talent for surrealism partnered with a lovely sense of restraint, making good use of that paradox.

Don Quichotte, Mariinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2011

Don Quichotte, Massenet, Mariinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2011

Les Voyages de M. Broucek, Janacek,  Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2008

Les Voyages de M. Broucek, Janacek, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2008

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2015

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2015

Maria Bjornson (1949-2002)
Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

It mustn’t just sit there like an empty box.
–Maria Bjornson
Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

Bjornson is most famous for her flamboyant and iconic designs for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, but there is much more to this sensitive and powerful artist than can be seen in a single show. She sought to present complete realizations of dream images and the collective unconscious onstage, not as background or detail, but as drama. Her images were not static ones, but implied motion, illustrated in the stills from Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The cast is dwarfed by huge dynamic scenery just as the characters are dwarfed by their own fate.

Macbeth, Verdi, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 2008

Macbeth, Verdi, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 2008

Cunning Little Vixen, Scottish Opera, 2011

Cunning Little Vixen, Scottish Opera Glasgow, Scotland, 2011

Don Giovanni, Mozart, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England, 2012

Don Giovanni, Mozart, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England, 2012

Bjornson’s death at the age of 53, suffering an epileptic seizure in the bath after working a fifteen hour day while infected with Chicken Pox, was tragic for opera, ballet and theater alike. A month before she died, she delivered the designs for The Little Prince, a magical jewel of an opera by Rachel Portman,  based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The work premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003 to rave reviews and would later be filmed by the BBC. Houston Grand Opera will present this delightful production, full of childlike wonder, again next season (December 2015).

The Little Prince, Portman, Houston Grand Opera, 2003

The Little Prince, Portman, Houston Grand Opera, 2003

The Little Prince, Portman, New York City Opera, 2005

The Little Prince, Portman, New York City Opera, 2005

Johan Engels (1952-2014)

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013 Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, USA, 2013

You may be the most brilliant designer in the world, but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you’re lost.  –Johan Engels

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013 Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, USA, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, USA, 2013

Johan Engels grew up addicted to drawing and to movies, especially the Biblical epics which were so prominent in the 1950s. This influence is clearly present in his work, which is not afraid to take on religious imagery, although it does so with a degree of ambiguity and thoughtfulness that might alarm someone with a fundamentalist bent. Ecstasy, devotion and corruption are placed before the eyes and writ large. I am particularly moved by the images below, from a production of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The relationship of the tortured body of Christ to the characters is mind-blowing. We are given a new interpretation of what it means to be at the feet of Jesus and see Christ’s action mirrored by the cast. Finally, Christ’s agony is depicted as embracing and encompassing everyone onstage. Powerful, to say the least.

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

There is humor and laughter in Engels’ work as well, as you can see in this version of Die Zauberflöte from the Bregenz Festival. It is influenced by his childhood in Africa and makes excellent use of the lake, which Engels acknowledged as a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

22-FP_Zauberflote_18-1.07.14_Kohler_7

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

I’ve had the pleasure of working on Engels’ sets myself as a chorister at Houston Grand Opera in productions of Chorus! (2009), Don Carlos (2011), The Passenger (2014) and Otello (2014). If you would like to hear me rave about The Passenger set and talk about that impressive opera, click here. Without his stunning set design I doubt the piece would have worked.

The Passenger, Bregenz Festival, Bregenz, Austria, 2010, image by Karl Forster

The Passenger, Bregenz Festival, Bregenz, Austria, 2010, image by Karl Forster

It was always striking to me that a man with his talent for telling grand epics could have such a craftsmanly way about him. I was very saddened to hear of his death last November from a heart attack just as we opened his Otello. His sets are places for adventure, containing elements and imagery you never quite expect or can prepare for, even when performing with them every night. Performing feels riskier and the pay off is extremely exciting and rewarding. The great set designer is also a great storyteller, whose designs continue speaking to rapt audiences all over the globe after their creator has passed on. I hope it will be so for a very long time.

All photos are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for the purpose of enlightening the public.
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