Scenery is more than mere background or decoration. It has power to determine our rejection or acceptance of a story.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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).
You may be the most brilliant designer in the world, but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you’re lost. –Johan Engels
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.
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.
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.
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.