If anybody asked me what's new at The Metropolitan Opera, I'd have to say that there is a new design aesthetic afoot. Let's face it, when you bring in designers such as George Tsypin, Donald Holder, Michael Curry, Thomas Lynch, Martin Pakledinaz, and Peter Kaczorowski, you know you are not going to get the same old, same old. Last fall, this roster of designers put their talent to work in two spectacular productions at The Met: Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Handel's Rodelinda, Regina de' Longobardi.
Julie Taymor, the Tony-Award winning director of The Lion King, directed The Magic Flute, making her debut at The Met. The visual impact of the work comes from her collaboration with set designer George Tsypin, who is the one member of the design team with previous experience at The Met, as well as lighting designer Donald Holder and puppet designer Michael Curry. Both Holder and Curry, making their Met debuts with The Magic Flute, worked with Taymor on The Lion King.
“The visual concept came from Julie,” notes Holder. “She wanted a mystical kind of world that is referential in some ways to past productions of The Magic Flute.” Taymor and Tsyprin did a previous version together at the Florence Maggio Musicale. For The Met version, they created an incredibly complex, visually arresting set. “The scenic concept was to create a glistening magical place, like a kaleidoscope, made of glass, mirrors, and light, with a lot of reflected images,” Holder says. “It is not a real place, but there are references to Egypt and imagery taken from Masonic and Tantric art from the East.”
The primary set pieces were large squares, made of double-layer glass held within metal frames, with openings of other geometric shapes, such as circles, squares or triangles, within the initial squares. Projection surfaces could be used within the geometric openings, with projections of more geometric shapes adding to the kaleidoscopic effect as the set pieces turned and slid into various configurations.
As light was considered a major element, Holder considers the design concept a marriage of light and the scenic elements. “The light completes the stage pictures and reflects off of the scenic elements,” says Holder, who discovered the challenges of working within the incredibly complex repertory system at The Met. “It was quite a challenge,” he confirms. “We discussed a lot of possible solutions for lighting the scenery, and the staff at The Met was incredible in terms of mock-ups and trying different sources, as they moved forward with my ideas and saw what worked and what didn't.”
One solution was lighting the scenic elements internally with LEDs that were embedded in scenery. “The crew bought the parts and engineered and built the LEDs themselves,” Holder notes. A lot of the internal lighting was low voltage, as well as battery operated due to the extensive use of the turntable. “There was no time to run power to the units. Because of the multitude of scenic moves, it was not possible to plug anything in,” says Holder, who adds that the lighting of this production was an amazing technical achievement by The Met crew.
Another challenge Holder had was how to project the images on the projection surfaces within the moving scenic elements. His solution was the use of two VARI*LITE VL3000™ automated luminaires on a rolling tower on stage. “I needed not only to create projections, but morph from image to image and color to color at various distances from the scenery, so I needed zoom optics,” he points out. “The VL3000 was the only fixture that could do the job.”
Holder also used five Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance automated luminaires. “Given the complexity of the scenic elements and the need for specificity in terms of color and individual shafts of light, there was not enough room overhead to hang as many conventional fixtures as we would have needed.”
Lighting the glass provided another set of challenges. “I experimented with the model and found I had to be very specific in terms of angles due to the reflective nature of the surfaces,” says Holder. “I also had to use very specific angles due to the mirrors, so as not to reveal parts of the space that should not be revealed, or to ruin any of the illusions.” An example of this is when food is seemingly flying through the air (thanks to the help of Bunraku puppetry). “The light had to be very specifically located to pull off the illusion,” Holder notes.
The glass also needed to appear more or less translucent or transparent at various moments, and Holder made some of his discoveries about lighting the glass once the production was on stage. “You can only predict so much from working with the model,” he says. “Fortunately we had some time over the summer to experiment in the theatre.”
Holder discovered that the process of working at The Met is very different from working in a Broadway or regional theatre. “You are supposed to create the cues and finish the show technically months before. Then the cast and orchestra come in for run-throughs,” he explains. “But at the end of the summer, Julie was still staging the opera, which is very complex with puppets and projections. I worked on the piece right through the final performance.”
Holder's color palette was determined by colors that Tsypin used in his models and drawings; colors that were specific to certain scenes, such as pink for the rose garden and green for the forest. “It was up to me to figure out how to do this technically,” Holder says. He discovered that an opera house can use much larger sources than the theatre, and took advantage of 4000W HMIs and 5000W Fresnels to throw color on the glass and translucent portals with objects. “He was surprised at how much light you need to make a statement at The Met and how powerful the sources were,” he adds. “In the theatre, the sources are smaller and closer to the performers. They wouldn't even read at The Met.”
Holder is part of the new design explosion at The Met. “By bringing in new people they are pushing the envelope more,” he says. “I was there to best serve the piece no matter what the obstacles were. And this was a huge production that we barely got together by opening night, but the staff at The Met seemed so energized by this new approach to the material. This production is visually dense but each idea on stage has a specific reason to be there. I think that The Magic Flute should be a visual extravaganza.” In this case, it certainly was!
Handel With Care
Later in the season came Rodelinda, a “lost” Handel opera (at least “lost” to most American audiences) that certainly found its way in this new production at The Met. Once again the creative team was highly theatrical, starting with director Stephen Wadsworth, and including set designer Thomas Lynch, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz (all but the latter making their Met debut). In this case, Lynch created scenic design that gave the opera an unusual facility to change locations seamlessly without closing the curtain or enduring long unwieldy scene changes.
“When Handel wrote the opera he set it in the far away time of 9th or 10th-century Italy,” notes Lynch. “We didn't want to do it in that period and decided it was more sensible to set it in Handel's own time, or the first quarter of the 18th century.” This is in fact a period that Lynch feels comfortable working in, and has collaborated with Wadsworth on other pieces from that era, notably three plays by Marivaux (seen at The McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ).
“Rodelinda is concise in its storytelling, and has a real plot where everything gets worked out,” says Lynch. “It is a story of love, revenge, and power with six principals and a pared down orchestra. The great question was how to present Handel in a large house like The Met.” After talking over several ideas with general manager Joe Volpe, including the idea of a small jewel-box production, it was decided to create all the scenes called for in the score. Lynch then needed to create a way for the action to move easily from one place to another on a large Italian estate.
“Moving scenery is something I enjoy doing,” says Lynch, who discovered that there is machinery in place at The Met to facilitate this. “We decided to move the scenery a vista, or in view of the audience,” he explains. This allowed for the seamless flow from one scene to another without stopping. The scenery was loaded onto a series of wagons off stage left. The wagons were pulled across the stage by winches and chain drives, and as one scene “exited” stage right, the next could be added on stage left.
The interior rooms, which include a salon used as a bedroom where Rodelinda, the title character (sung magnificently by Renée Fleming) is being held as a prisoner, and a large ornate library that opens Act II with oohs and aahs from the audience. “We wanted to nail one spot that would feel like the center of power in the villa. The combination of power and enlightenment is the library,” says Lynch. “The rooms are wide but shallow. This helped get the sound out to the audience. We provided reflective surfaces for the voices. A Handelian voice is not necessarily a Wagnerian voice.” A raked floor, used throughout, also helped provide bounce for the sound. The deck was a composite of materials made to look like flagstone, then hard-coated.
The first-act salon, a box-set with a ceiling, slides off stage right to reveal a small garden, then a cemetery with half-built obelisk, then the stables (complete with a live horse!). The salon is first seen in semi-obscurity, but as the curtains are opened, sunlight streams in the windows. Lynch worked with Kaczorowski to make sure it was possible to get light onto the sets. “His work is most astonishing,” says Lynch. “Some of the most beautiful moments are split scenes, where the scenery shows interior and exterior places at the same time. Each has its own quality of light.”
In Act II, the machinery is once again used, not only to slide the scenery offstage, but also to lift the deck to reveal a dungeon in the basement below. In the third act, a night scene by the obelisk is set in cold moonlight. “This is a new quality of light late in the opera,” notes Lynch. “The lighting feels very natural in each of the locations. This is quite an accomplishment given the short amount of tech time.”
Paklendinaz provided an interesting complement to the lighting and scenery with period costumes that were incredibly detailed. “There was a softness on stage that allowed the costumes to add a focus on the singers,” explains Lynch. “The costumes have good clean shapes and strong or deep, and sometimes unusual colors. They helped define the singers within a large visual context.”
Lynch credits technical director Joseph Clark and the stage crew for helping solve the technical issues. “The crew was incredibly careful during scene changes and that the moving machinery never caused too much noise. Some of the moves are at very delicate moments in the music but you didn't ever hear the scenery moving,” notes Lynch.
Is there really a design revolution going on at The Met? “It was remarkable to have The Magic Flute and Rodelinda back to back in the same season, with very different, yet full-out designs,” says Lynch. “It is also interesting that it was a fall season with American creators, by and large.” One just has to wait and see what happens next season.