Sunday, June 17, 2001

What inspires opera directors, designers

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        We asked designers and directors to answer two questions:

        Question: Where do you get your inspiration?

        Director Francesca Zambello: “I am guided by my heart and my soul. That's what leads me to decide how to interpret a work. I'm an interpreter; I'm not the creator. The creator is the composer or the writer. I'm guided by intuition, because having an individual voice is hopefully what makes something interesting to an audience.”

        Designer John Conklin: “I'm influenced a lot by architecture. I'm much more interested in architecture than in painting. Stage design is essentially a three-dimensional architectural event, rather than a painting.”

        Designer Michael Yeargan: “Everywhere! Each show is so unique, it's like an equation. You have a project, a director, a designer, and a place where you're going to do it and a point in time. You add those together and you come up with what you're going to get on opening night. Change any one of those coordinates in the equation, and it's going to be different.”

        Designer Michael Levine: “For Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung, the influences stemmed from the pieces, being Schoenberg and Bartok writing at the turn of the last century. Our influences were the visual artists who were in Vienna at that time: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and all of those angst-ridden decorative painters. In Erwartung, we drew on the the writings of Freud.”

        Director Nicholas Muni: “We always start with the characters, where do they start and end, what is their movement, and what happens to them. Because theater is about action, as opposed to activity. We discuss the paths each character takes, and what are the forces that make them make decisions. Once we discuss that, (designer) Peter Werner starts to get images to support that.”

        Mr. Werner: “While I am working, I see images in my head, somewhat like a music video. Sometimes these images are loosely connected and in rapid succession; at other times the images seem to have no coherence at all. I simply think visually.”

        Thomas Umfrid, professor, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music

        “I've traveled the last 10 years in Asia. I'm going to get away from Western tradition and ideas. You go to Chinese opera, and the way someone will move in a circle, the sweep of the arm, the flick of a feather, all of this is symbolic language. Or to spend four hours watching a shadow play — their idea of stamina is very different.”

        Question: Where is opera design headed?

        Mr. Yeargan: “It's anyone's guess. It will be responsive to the media, it will be technologically advanced. There's a new Ring cycle being done in Los Angeles which is using (Star Wars creator) George Lucas and his film company to do special effects.”

        Ms. Zambello: “Visually, production values have grown immensely. ... The director in opera in the last 20 years has been, in part, the person who has been keeping the art form alive. Because basically, you have 50 titles, and somebody had to keep reinterpreting those titles. The director is responsible for demanding a certain level of theatricality, visual awareness, of putting the power back in what perhaps was the original intention of composers.”

        Paul Shortt, CCM professor and resident set designer: “I see England influenced by the continent. And I see the United States influenced by England. But Cincinnati is behind the rest of the country, the rest of the country is behind England, and England is behind Europe.”

        Mr. Conklin: “I think stuff has become much more simple, much more abstract. Another trend is that postmodern design and productions are on their way out. People in trench coats, masks — those trends are starting to have elements of empty cliche.”

        Mr. Levine: “People talk a lot about technology. Technology is something that is another tool that designers have, but ultimately, it's the story that's the most important thing.”

        Production director Glenn Plott: “The technicians are learning new crafts to keep up. We have to deal with resins and plastics and with different weights of metals, and learn how to make different applications of environmentally safe products.”

        Mr. Werner: “Many European houses are searching for innovative interpretations, which is why high-caliber work can appear almost anywhere. I feel unable to draw a fair and personal comparison to U.S. design trends ... I only notice that creative work in U.S. theaters is often hindered by too many unrelated factors.”

        Mr. Umfrid: “It's an economic proposition. I'm rather distraught about the economics, because I'm in a position to train young people to do it, but the economics is against them. ... Opera costs more to produce than it brings at the gate. You can understand why a company would co-produce a piece. So you have two theaters, and only one designer getting a job.”


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