The earthquake of 1989 was the shock of the century for the stately Beaux Arts San Francisco Opera House. Now completely restored, in September it will host something almost as massive — the US stage premiere of Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise.

The crest of this five-hour musical tsunami is the largest ensemble in the Opera's history. Ninety-seven musicians, seven vocal soloists, and 110 choristers, backed by a 59-man crew, will be spilling out and into the audience beyond the shattered proscenium and the collapsed cityscape in the background. The four quake-wracked building units on the stage twist and shift against the vortex of the sinuous rising path rotating on a central 50' turntable.

The monumental lyricism of Hans-Dieter Schaal's sculpturally dynamic set, mutually austere and Expressionist, achieves the equilibrium between heaven and earth so important to him here. “Saint François d'Assise is a work that is so uncompromising in its religion and so radical that it stands up to functional, consumption-crazed reality like a massive monolith,” he says.

In this operatic evocation of the 13th century saint's epiphany of faith by stigmata to shoulder the physical suffering of humanity, Schaal's design shares with Messiaen's score an independence of historical quotes. They draw their powers and poetics from shapes and tones both abstract and intimate.

“The San Fransciso opera house is one of the largest in the world,” says Schaal. “The auditorium seats almost 4,000 people. The set responds to this problem of size with clear, simple forms. In the center is a curving path that rises to 3m above the level of the stage. To the left and right of this are the facades of buildings; these can be moved, and extend or restrict the overall space available. In the background there is a view of a town that has been half destroyed, burnt black and lurching diagonally to one side. In front of this is a 3m-high town wall with a lot of doors.”

Messiaen's music is approachably inventive and warm yet deep and complex, given to sky-high arcs of ecstatic mysticism, anchored upon his devout Catholicism. It is, says Schaal, “A trip through space for the soul. A tumult of fantasy images. Devotion. A pilgrimage to a possible paradise. The music proclaims this. Birds and angels are its messengers. Messiaen is the medium.”

Completed near the end of his life, Saint François remains Messiaen's only work composed for the stage. Premiering in Paris in 1983, the challenges of its epic scale have daunted further appearances. The San Francisco production will be its fifth, and the one and only presentation for this company.

Launching the five-year schema of recently appointed general director Pamela Rosenberg's Animating Opera themes, Saint François is at the head of the class for her Seminal Works of Modern Times series. In the production preparations for this unique event, they convened the creative team of Rosenberg, Schaal, music director Donald Runnicles, director Nicolas Brieger, costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, lighting designer Alexander Koppelman and dramaturg Wolfgang Willaschek.

Considered to be one of the great theoreticians in Germany on the art of architecture, Schaal's scenic design has embraced and resolved thorny productions such as Lulu, Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, and Boulevard Solitude. He was the logical fit to visually realize the theology and philosophy involved in Saint François.

With the authorship of a new show from Germany, what was it like for the San Francisco Opera company's production staff to receive, long distance, and raise this conception from floor to flies? “Heads up — we're docking the Hindenburg!” one hand was heard to exclaim.

Europeans usually use a 1/20 or 1/25 model and a set of drawings. Their civil discourse enabled concepts and conversions to be steadily and smoothly translated into working drawings here. “A lot of the communication was in German,” says Jay Kotcher, scenic artist in charge. “One nice thing about an opera company is that you always have half a dozen languages within reach.”

“Something really new for us was the German bauprobe (staging-proof), says Jack Kostelnik, scene shop construction foreman. “We usually work with the blueprints and a model. The bauprobe allows the director to meet with the designers, everybody in the same place at the same time. We look at mockup scenery, then we have six or seven months with them to decide what the final look will be.”

Adds Larry Klein, associate technical director, “To create three flats we simply cut a black drape with net and put them on rollers. We got some scaffolding for the wall that runs all the way across the upstage, which had six doorways cut into it so the monks could come and go. We'd never created scenery for a bauprobe before, but of course the idea is that once you've created it, you can use it for the rehearsals. In Germany, they rarely rehearse with the scenery.”

“We decided to move the supertitle screens from the top of the proscenium to both the left and to the right of the stage,” says Kostelnik. “That allows us to raise the proscenium higher, which made the designers very happy. We were going at 22' and now we can go for a height of from 28' to 30'.”

“The musical staff was very involved with this bauprobe,” notes Klein, “because from the very beginning, the question was where are we going to put the expanded orchestra? The chorus is all over the place. Not only onstage and the extensions, but also in the organ bays, out in the house, and elsewhere.”

The designers wanted to break down the separation between the audience and the stage even before the curtain opens.The golden proscenium is extended with its distressed debris. “We've designed a platform that projects over the audience, taking out about 10 seats from the level of the stage and over the orchestra, so that gives us two layers of musicians on the site,” explains Kostelnik.

Resident sound designer Roger Gans was charged with the task of handling both the layered musicians and the offstage chorus. The latter were placed outside the stage-right organ bay and amplified to give them that “heavenly choir” resonance. Onstage, the chorus relied on monitors when they're singing from within these box-like building units.

The first scene opens with projections on the front scrim of the recent earthquake in Assisi, Italy, connecting San Francisco, the city of earthquakes and Saint Francis, to Assisi. The theme of ruin extends to the collapsed city with a shattered hanging building piece and a large cross that is falling apart.

The four buildings, three stories high, have rollup blinds with heavy sharkstooth scrims behind them. “There's a lot of lighting in this show by fluorescents,” says Klein, “such as those hidden in the sills of the openings in every one of the 18 cubicles. When we light the people inside — such as the lepers — there is another set of MR-16s.”

According to lighting supervisor Rob Hill, the production will be utilizing new equipment from German lighting company Lichtechnik, specifically MagVaders, combination shutter scroller units with removable color cartridges. “We are also using two automated Arri 4k fresnels with the same MagVaders and automated barndoors which Lichtechnik built for us,” Hill adds. Other equipment includes a range of Strand HMI PARs with Phoebus dousers and Wybron scrollers, Vari*Lite VL5Bs and VL6s, Clay Paky Goldenscans, Strand automated 2k Pirouettes, Lycian 1.2kw followspots, and Strand 550 and 520 consoles.

In the pivotal first scene of the third act, St. Francis is standing up on the cross, formed by a steel frame beam tilted about 12' or 14' in the air. “We decided to farm this out to Tomcat Trussing, because this is a very long beam, 46' long,” says Klein. (Other than such parts as the large drawer glides, the rest of the scenery was built by SFO.) “St. Francis stands on a gimbal so that he stays vertical. He's connected by a harness to a collapsible pole under the gimbal. The stigmata happens to him while he's up there singing, and then he collapses. The beam comes down, and the monks come out. As they lay him down, they shove the arm of the cross out, which clicks into place so that his arms can be extended, and then the whole thing floats out over the orchestra pit.”

“It's not really a painter's show, it's a construction and lighting show,” says Kotcher. “Various beams and floors and ramps are done in this silver heavily sprayed and spattered down with black and gray over the silver. The other treatment for all those house wall units is a black texture with just a little bit of gray spatter on it. As they take the light you'll get this finest texture.” “Alexander Koppelman's lighting is terrific here,” adds Klein. And, “It will all never be done again.”

Concludes Schaal, “This image presents a view of a final condition. The earth has been destroyed and sealed with metal. Francis preaches against this destruction. At the end we are left with the dream of the weightlessness of the birds and of music. The sunlight becomes brighter and brighter, until it dissolves and extinguishes the visible world.”