The scene is a brooding blue hot summer night, with a trash heap of metal scrap at one side of the stage and a devastated rail-head on the other. In the distance, there's a hazy high-tension tower. Baying hounds are heard in the distance. Two frantic men in overalls scramble under the naked rail-ends and rusty freight cars looming above, hiding from the search party that scours the upstage area.
This could be California's Salinas Valley, the actual locale of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The scene on the Bregenz Festival's indoor stage is, after all, the opening image in Carlisle Floyd's powerful opera, based on Steinbeck's novel. But it could also be someplace in Europe, in the warmer climes--and it looks contemporary. Not like a recreation of Depression-era California, with its lonely ranchhand drifters and its Grapes of Wrath migrant workers.
The theme of last summer's Bregenz Festival centered on dreams and hopes, especially those of outsiders who often really have no hope of realizing their dreams. So Floyd's opera, Of Mice and Men, proved an excellent choice. All its characters are outsiders, but most have given up on their dreams. Except the sole woman, known only as Curley's Wife, who dreams of Hollywood stardom. And Steinbeck's two homeless ranchhands—George and Lennie—who dream of having their own little farm.
Currently, Western Europe is inundated with refugees and asylum-seekers from Third World lands. They too dream of a better life in places that may not be able to accommodate them—or even want to. The situation in California during the Great Depression was similar: "Okies" and "Arkies," who had lost their farms in the Dust Bowl, flooded into the Golden State. Workers were needed, at dirt-cheap day wages, for the few weeks of harvest. Then the farming communities wanted them to disappear.
This gives the Depression-era Of Mice and Men a special relevance to European audiences. The novel is still popular, required reading in schools. It still speaks powerfully to readers 70 years later. But, although the novel and the film versions are familiar, Floyd's opera is virtually unknown in Europe.
In preparing the Bregenz production, director Francesca Zambello and designer Richard Hudson wanted to suggest the contemporary relevance of this sad story of the two rootless friends looking for a home. They didn't want to recreate a Salinas Valley ranch in the 1930s, however. Zambello wanted "a more emotional rendering," as she says. "That meant working with someone who did not grow up with the American ideas and symbols."
Her choice was London-based designer Hudson, whose Broadway design debut was La Bête, a strikingly skewed setting. Hudson and Zambello had previously collaborated on a production of Benjamin Britten's opera, Peter Grimes—another outsider. Thematic similarities were not the only attractions of the Bregenz project. Zambello points out that both operas are in a sense chamber-operas, largely with intimate scenes.
Hudson says, "Most of the action occurs in a barn." So he and Zambello wanted to create a confining space, suggesting the characters' lack of freedom, even in the wide-open spaces of rural California.
In the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, George and Lennie's double-decker bunk is made of wood, as was then the custom. But Hudson—instead of creating a 1930s bunkhouse—has given the ranch hands double-decker metal Army cots, wth blankets and mattresses folded as in any military barracks. California barns, Hudson notes, were traditionally built of wood. But he and Zambello wanted to suggest a more "industrial atmosphere," so the walls of the barn are made of corrugated tin. "The style almost reminds of Anselm Kiefer, with a lot of rusty metal and tin," he says. "We wanted to make the place look dangerous—hot and unforgiving." The lighting was also specially designed to heighten the sense of unremitting heat.
Zambello notes that metal buildings become like ovens, "or even pressure-cookers," in summer heat And this barn/bunkhouse—has only one small door to the world outside. Therefore, not only George and Lennie are trapped even farther from their dream of open spaces and their own farm, but so are the others.
For a moment or two, a distant vision of the open land appears. This is an almost surreal touch, but it does suggest the fantasy of George and Lennie's shared dream. When the ranch hands play horseshoes, the door of the barn/bunkhouse stands open so one or two of the players can be seen. But it is a very limited view of the world outside. Even though the inside of the barn seems very big, it is nonetheless claustrophobic. There are no windows between the bunkbeds. The atmosphere is both hot and dark.
Zambello and Hudson wanted this major setting to contrast with the opening scene, airy and under an open sky. But the initial image is also paradoxical, as George and Lennie are on the run and have almost no place to hide, except under the rails or in the scrap heap. In the fatal closing scene, the two railroad cars are gone. The empty tracks, pointing senselessly into the air, suggest the end of the road for the two buddies.
For the scene in which the giant Lennie—not knowing his own strength—strokes the blonde hair of Curley's Wife, Zambello again invoked stifling heat and rusted tin walls. But this time there is no doorway. As she says, "In the murder scene, there's no escape—they're all completely trapped."
This scene is dominated upstage by a large and very complicated piece of rusted iron farm machinery. It suggests not only an industrialization of farm labor, but also a very dangerous contraption that could kill. It's a sinister background for the accidental murder of Curley's Wife. It didn't look like anything I'd ever seen, and I grew up on a farm in California in the 1930s. So I asked Hudson if this was pure fantasy.
After the premiere, Hudson showed me both the rail cars and the machinery up close. He assured me that, even though he didn't grow up in rural America, this almost surreal creation was based on a photo of a piece of farm machinery. Examining this set piece carefully, I could see it might have been inspired by a corn-shucking machine. But, as Hudson noted, the object was only to suggest a farm atmosphere, not to imitate reality onstage.
Insisting on a designer who was not American-born and bred, Zambello wanted to give this production a wider image recognition factor for European audiences. To suggest it could as well have taken place on other ranches in other lands.
As I pointed out to Hudson, his low-bed railroad cars looked to be inspired by English and European rolling stock, not by American trains. He seemed surprised; he thought they were much the same. But Hudson's Bregenz freight-wagons have two small piston shock-absorbers on either side of each end. These are not to be found on American rolling stock, which have only the central couplings.
Another thing I noticed as we continued to inspect the set pieces was that the rail cars were constructed of an ingenious mix of metal and wood. We were then joined by the Bregenz Festival's technical director, Gerd Alfons, and Eugen Postolache. Postolache explained why the cars had been made with some real metal instead of entirely of wood. "The pieces have to be kept light, but, at the same time, they need a certain sense of solidity." They also needed to be fairly light because this impressive Bregenz staging is a coproduction with the Houston Grand Opera. And it may also soon be seen in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Placido Domingo—who heads both of those cities' operas—was in Bregenz to check out the production.
Postolache is a master of set and special-effects stage construction. Based in Bucharest—where he maintains a shop with 20 technicians—he has created astounding constructions for such shows as Elizabeth and Freudiana, with designer Hans Schavernoch. He studied sculpture and design in the United States and is eager to work on some American projects. The Bregenz set pieces, he says, could have been made in a month, but with other projects on hand, it took a bit longer.
Obviously first class workmanship is much less expensive in Romania, but Postolache now has so much work in Western Europe that he also maintains an office in Vienna. He calls his firm ARTDECO, and he can be contacted at email@example.com.
With the Bregenz Of Mice and Men, Postolache has in fact already worked on an American project. And there may be more Austrian-American coproductions in the near future, for both the Bregenz and Salzburg Festivals can no longer depend on generous federal and state arts subsidies.