Construction is inherently interesting. I really get into things like steel size.

You only have to look at one of Dipu Gupta's set designs to realize that he is a singular tyro talent. Don't expect naturalism and or lots of decor. In his design for the Frank Langella adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, a giant moon rising gave the stage an otherworldly look. His version of the jazz memory play Side Man unfurled strips of shiny, metallic material, a design that seems drawn from the ultra-cool abstract look of 50s jazz albums. In case after case, his work provides a structure in which to house a play, rather than a detailed illustration of it.

None of which is really surprising when you realize that Gupta trained as an architect (his master's degree is from the University of Virginia). He continues to work part-time as an architect, too, although he freely admits that he is much more interested in the stage. Then again, his background in architecture is probably the key to his design work. “Construction is inherently interesting,” he says. “I really get into things like steel size.”

Having left school in 1994, Gupta quickly realized that architecture might not provide him with a satisfying career. “As a society, we have decided not to build well,” he says. “We could be living in places that look like Paris and Rome. Instead, we're educated to like ugly buildings.” College — the University of Pennsylvania — provided him with some theatrical experience, and in graduate school, his imagination was seized by opera. He began designing opera productions, speculatively and for the love of it, to show what he could do.

Gupta's breakthrough took place in 1998, when he designed scenery and lighting for Verdi's Falstaff, produced in celebration of the reopening of Royce Hall at UCLA. A year later, he designed three productions for Shakespeare Santa Cruz: Othello, Arms and the Man, and a Cinderella staged in the English pantomime tradition. A year after that, he started working at San Jose Repertory Theatre, where his work included Cyrano and Side Man.

Gupta's designs are marked by strong structural conceptions and the use of unusual materials. For Lucia di Lammermoor at Santa Fe Opera this past summer, he placed a white cylinder at center stage. For certain scenes, the cylinder turned to reveal a gold interior, creating a strong sense of contrast and surprise. The set itself was constructed of plastic. Cyrano's moon was constructed out of foam, set against a backdrop of paper plastic, while an unrealized design for Tales of Hoffman featured a series of translucent panels on which the opera's score was painted. Another production from this past summer, Hippolyte et Aricie, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, consisted of a series of “S” shapes, constructed of holograph plastic. “You couldn't do this set five years ago,” he says, “because the material didn't exist.”

Speaking of Gupta's work, Timothy Near, artistic director of San Jose Rep, says, “Dipu's not afraid of the big metaphor. That's one of the things I like so much about his work, his ability to find and create an image that helps the play resonate. And yet he's very practical as well. He understands that for a metaphor to be fully successful it must incorporate the nuts and bolts of staging, it must feed the actors. It must be usable. Perhaps because of his architectural training, he's very good at mining the play for raw material, hauling it up to the surface, and building something beautiful. And then he's a lighting designer as well, so there's no question of it looking good and your designers getting along.”

Although he now lives in New York, Gupta still works most frequently on the West Coast. In July, there were two more productions for Shakespeare Santa Cruz: A Midsummer Night's Dream and She Stoops to Conquer. He'll return to Santa Cruz in November for another pantomime production, Hansel and Gretel. His 2002 schedule is filling up fast, with a double bill of Dido and Aeneas and Les Malheures d'Orphee at Henry Street Chamber Opera in New York (January), followed by a Barber of Seville for Opera Pacific in April, and a Magic Flute for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in May.

Gupta's style, with its subtleties and abstractions, is somewhat unusual in America, but he says, “We don't give enough credit to audiences.” He sometimes challenges technical departments with his ideas and choices of materials, but he adds, “You need to develop a sense of trust that they will be able to build your set.” He notes that he especially likes designing for opera, because of the long lead time, which allows time for reflection. The big question, he says, is, “Can a design have an artistic integrity in and of itself?” It's possibly an unanswerable question, yet Gupta's work makes it a provocative one, too.

Photo: Andrew French