Almost instantly upon its publication in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby became an irresistible lure for dramatists. A stage version, directed by George Cukor, was produced on Broadway in 1926, running 113 performances. Since then, there have been no fewer than three film versions; a fourth, for television, is being filmed as you read this. Then there's The Great Gatsby, the opera by John Harbison, which opened to great fanfare this past December at the Metropolitan Opera. Critics were sharply divided about the piece, but all were strongly in favor of the production's design, which vividly created the world of East Egg, Fitzgerald's version of that section of Long Island reserved for the very, very rich.
Scenic designer Michael Yeargan notes that the opera, like the book, breaks down into four major locations: the home of socialites Tom and Daisy Buchanan; the mansion occupied by Jay Gatsby, Daisy's long-lost lover; the Valley of Ashes, where Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress, lives with her garage-mechanic husband, George; and a suite at the Plaza Hotel, where Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby have their fateful confrontation. Yeargan created these locations with a few key scenic pieces and large-scale projections. "We wanted a combination of airiness, elegant furniture, and flowers," he says.
Thus Tom and Daisy's home consists of drawing-room furniture, arranged, says Yeargan, "in a psychological way," to suggest the growing cracks in the Buchanan marriage. Remembering a line from the book about gauze curtains blowing in the breeze, the designer added long, narrow strips of drapery; they are retained in other scenes, to serve as a projection surface. At a key moment in the first scene, Daisy mentions Gatsby, and the projection showing his house in the distance is suddenly revealed. (Yeargan drew much of his imagery from the book The Mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast, by Monica Randall.) The scenes set at Gatsby's mansion take a similar approach-the house is defined by front stairs and a balustrade, with the Buchanans' house visible in the distance, complete with the famous green light at the end of the pier that haunts Gatsby's imagination.
On the other hand, Yeargan took a sharply different approach to the Valley of Ashes, based on director Mark Lamos' remark that the music in these scenes is more expressionistic. Wilson's garage is defined by harsh-looking scenic pieces, including a car on lifts, gas pumps, and a large worktable. A key visual element is the famous brooding billboard of eye doctor T. J. Eckleburg-the billboard frame is a set piece, and the eyes are a projected image. Other projections, of a network of girders, add to the oppressive, claustrophobic feeling of this scene. Claustrophobia of another sort is evoked in the Plaza Hotel set-the only box set in the design-which is played behind a scrim; when lit, it gives a hazy, hot, and humid atmosphere to this late summer afternoon scene.
Tying these scenes together is the idea of clouds. The deck has a cloudscape painted on it, and the scenes at Gatsby's and the Buchanans' make ample use of sky projections to reflect the emotional weather onstage. The interlude sequences also feature clouds and other elements-including Eckleburg's eyes-passing across a scrim curtain.
Projectors were placed all over the Met auditorium to create the many images used in The Great Gatsby. In the front-of-house cove position, there are two 6K Gold Panis for slides, and two 4K Gold Panis with moving cloud disks. Both proscenium box booms have one 4K Pani each for slides, as do the left and right side gallery positions. Upstage, behind the white RP screen that backed the set, there are two 6K Gold Panis for the large-scale rear projections. A green laser was placed on top of one projector, to create the green light at the end of Daisy's pier.
Lighting designer Duane Schuler made judicious use of colors in each scene, often blending them with the projections to create striking effects, including some astonishingly vivid sunset effects. Overhead, he has Strand T3 iris units in four different shades of blue: Lee 201 (Full CT Blue), Lee 161 (Slate Blue), Lee 79 (Just Blue), and Lee 181 (Congo Blue); the latter creates the night wash for Gatsby's parties, while the others are used for scenes set at the Buchanans' home. A set of R40s focused on the horizon line feature R23 (Orange), G760 (Aqua Blue), and more Lee 79; behind that, a series of far cyc units have Lee 204 (Full CT Orange), G323 (Indian Summer), and more Lee 79. "All of these could be overlaid on any projections," says Schuler. "The R40s gave the projections more heat at the base, then the far cycs would color the entire screen." In keeping with the concept of airiness and billowing gauze curtains, most of the conventional fixtures have R199 (Light Hamburg Frost) for a softer, more diffused effect. The side scrim panels were also covered in softly focused cloud templates to reinforce the presence of the clouds painted on them. Furthermore, because he knew that the costumes would be vividly colored, especially in the party scenes, Schuler chose to keep the lighting on them in a clean palette of warm and cool tints, and then add color to the scenes by heavier backlight, supplied by 4K Arri HMI fresnels with color scrollers.
Costume designer Jane Greenwood came to the project later than her colleagues. Rereading Gatsby, she discovered that Fitzgerald was very precise in his descriptions of the characters. Thus she decided to forgo stylization for a more accurate look at the period. "Women were wearing short skirts for the first time," she says, "and were bobbing their hair; it was a very interesting period."
The designer's big assignment was the two party scenes at Gatsby's mansion. Greenwood drew her palette from the "acid colors" used in the famous dust jacket of the original Scribner's edition of Gatsby, which was also used to publicize the opera. "I didn't see it as a pastel moment," she says. In the first party, the stage is filled with ladies in the highest fashion of the day, short skirts with flat bosoms in orange, blue, red, and pink, and lots of outrageous details, including beads, fringe, boa trimmings, and geometric patterns. For the second party scene, Greenwood says, the high society crowd is beginning to be replaced by a fringe group of oddballs and hangers-on. "It's all beginning to fall apart and it's not nearly as high style." Indeed some of the chorus are dressed in bathing clothes, as if they've just come up from the beach.
For scenes with the principals, Greenwood says, "I used very little color, just pale beige and pale pinks and grays. I used all the real fabrics-silk, chiffon, georgette. All the women had the correct underwear, the little foundation garments that flattened them." One thing about these characters, she says, is "They have event clothes, different outfits for different times of day. In the first scene, Tom wears his riding clothes. Later, Jordan [Daisy's confidante] has her golf clothes." The men's clothes were built at Angels in London. The rest of the show was built at Eric Winterling Ltd. ("A new shining light, in my opinion," adds Greenwood). The shoes were made by Carlo Pompeii, of Rome. Lynn Mackey built the principals' hats.
The final scene is Gatsby's funeral. The exterior set of his mansion has been stripped of previous details, such as the bandstand and decorative Chinese lanterns. All the color is drained from the lighting; Schuler uses lots of sidelight to profile the actors onstage. Of course, the characters are dressed in funereal black. It's a deeply melancholy moment, which provides an appropriate finale to this tale of one man's lonely, doomed pursuit of the American Dream.
Other key contributors to the production are Joe Clark, technical director; Douglas Lebrecht, charge scenic artist; Lesley Weston, costume shop head; Bobby Winkler, in charge of projections; Wayne Chouinard, resident lighting designer; Gary Marder, assistant resident lighting designer; and Joseph Dana Gracey, master electrician. The Great Gatsby will next be seen, in this production, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for a run beginning October 2.