Many designers remember their first project as being in some "shoebox of a theatre." In Michael Yeargan's case, that has more than a ring of truth. "I had a music teacher in the fourth grade who was a major influence on my life," he recalls. Dallas was one of the stops on the Metropolitan Opera's national tour, and his teacher would arrange for the class to attend; La Boheme was the first opera he ever saw. The teacher enriched the students' experience by playing the music, teaching them choruses, even having them bring cardboard boxes to school. "She would have us construct themes from the operas in miniature shadow boxes," he notes.
Yeargan's canvas has grown in the intervening years. Today he is one of opera's more in-demand set designers, working with such institutions as the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Dallas Opera, Welsh National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Scottish Opera, Theatre Musical de Paris, and Opera Australia. But Yeargan, who is also resident designer at Yale Repertory Theatre and associate professor (adjunct) at his alma mater Yale School of Drama, may have reached a new career height with the San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which had its world premiere last year.
Despite his global schedule, Yeargan began working at SFO only quite recently. His design for I Puritani at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden was rented by SFO, but, he says, "I wasn't available to go there at the time." Two years ago, he received a call from director Lotfi Mansouri, his collaborator on a Santa Fe Opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Now SFO's general director, Mansouri made an offer that would test the designer's qualities of versatility and strong signature ideas.
SFO was faced with an out-of-house season, during which its great granite Beaux Arts temple, the War Memorial Opera House, would undergo an 18-month retrofit and restoration. Thus Yeargan designed La Boheme in the smaller, faux-Baroque Orpheum Theatre and, in the cavernous Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, he installed Carmen. "They worked out well," he says, "so Lotfi asked me to come back and do Madam Butterfly," for the summer season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Like the successful La Boheme at the Orpheum, it too had a Broadway-style run structure supported by a rotation of four casts.
"Then," recalls Yeargan, "Lotfi said, 'I'm doing a new opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire.' I remembered him talking to me about that project years ago, when we did Lucia in Santa Fe. At the time, he wanted Stephen Sondheim to write it for Beverly Sills, but that never happened." Now Mansouri had a composer, Andre Previn, and a libretto by Philip Littell, with Colin Graham directing. "Would I be interested in designing it? I said, absolutely!"
Streetcar is the quintessential New Orleans story, and Yeargan had enjoyed unique experiences that would inform his design decisions. "The research period to me is always the most fascinating," he says. Traveling back and forth from his home in Texas to Stetson University, the Deland, FL, school where he did his undergraduate work, Yeargan's train often stopped in New Orleans. "I would wander around the French Quarter," he recalls. "I loved it, with all those colors blending together in the humidity, the mold and the moss and everything. New Orleans is about all of those angles. There's nothing that's straight up and down, it's so old. The ceilings are all so high because of the heat."
Yeargan was also familiar with Elia Kazan's film of Streetcar, which he saw when it was released in 1951. "That's a major influence on anybody, to see that film with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter. The art direction of that film is pretty hard to escape--it creates such a nightmarish atmosphere."
Yeargan went on to design Tennessee Williams' play in 1976 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. Shirley Knight played Blanche, Glenn Close was Stella, and Eric Roberts was the paperboy. "I remembered from that experience that Streetcar is very difficult, because you have three playing areas which you have to fit into a 40' proscenium," he says. "It's how you divvy up the real estate. It was a huge help to have done the play, to know where things needed to be. That helped with my conversations with Colin. It helped take us a step further along the way."
To get going on the mood and continuity while Previn was still writing the score, Yeargan listened to the jazzy and expressionistic soundtrack from the movie. He went back to the play and did all the New Orleans research before there was a specific libretto from Littell. "But even when I got the libretto," says Yeargan, "it's still wedded to that kitchen, living room, poker table, bedroom, and bathroom."
According to Yeargan, Graham told him, "It has to be incredibly atmospheric, incredibly dynamic. And I want that big spiral staircase in front." In reality, there are no staircases like that in New Orleans; that image had been established in the movie. The staircase also raised a number of complex issues involving both sightlines and construction.
"As I was drawing," says Yeargan, "I kept on putting some perspective in it so it wasn't just dead-on; by then I had heard a snippet of Andre's score, and I just knew that it wasn't going to be lyrical and symmetrical music. I began to find an angle running through it all." The 3-degree slant he added to the cornice line of the set was very slight, but enough to lend an expressionistic dimension to the scenes that reflected Blanche's psychological collapse. The tilt added about $100,000 to the budget, but it also gave more strength to the steel frame.
Yeargan constructed a small rough model of the Streetcar set to enable him and Graham to arrive at major planning decisions. He formed as many as five models of the staircase, each featuring a different curve, as he tried to make it integral to the whole set. Then the designer decided to have the set split apart, to allow for dynamic scene transitions. "If you go back to the Samuel French version of the original play," he says, "which is the original staging of it, you may think that all the scenes blended together cinematically. But if you take the moment where Stanley says, 'I'll do the dishes!' and he trashes the place, the curtain had to come in so they could clean up the mess, inasmuch as the next scene was a week later." Yeargan then worked out the plans and produced 1/4" scale drawings, which were delivered to the Opera as preliminaries. The structure was especially complicated because of its tilt. Associate technical directors Barry Klein and Marc Scott took the whole plan, translated it in AutoCAD, and worked out what the structural specifications would have to be.
Constructed by the San Francisco Opera Scenic Studios, the steel set, with its turntables, weighed over three and a half tons upon completion. Of course, San Francisco is earthquake country, so the set had to pass city inspections, certifying that it was as safe as any free-standing building its size.
The Opera House's proscenium is high and wide enough to accommodate the massive spiral staircase, which is a key factor in achieving fluid scenic transitions. "We don't bring the curtain down; we find ways to change within the scene," Yeargan explains. "When the opera begins, for instance, we split the set apart in a distorted sort of way." The bedroom unit and kitchen are split and pivoted around so that the stairs are down center. As a result, "Blanche can come through the middle of the split set, with fog and smoke and all of that," he adds. "And you are in her dream world from the very beginning. As [the neighbor lady] Eunice takes her into the apartment, the bedroom and kitchen then pivot around and come back together again."
Yeargan's set solutions in all his SFO designs are often almost balletic, enabling the director to partner stage movement and blocking with parts of the set structure sliding, turning, or pivoting. In Madam Butterfly, for instance, director Ron Daniels wanted nothing onstage that wasn't absolutely essential. Yeargan delivered a bento box solution, with elegant wood-and-paper shoji grids operating as a graceful system of closed and open surfaces that meshed together, concealing and revealing, transforming interiors to exteriors, and providing entrances and exits in a series of cinematic wipes. Instead of running the screens from the flies or pulleying them from under the stage, they were moved by traditional kuroko stagehands dressed in black.
Yeargan's design for Carmen featured a circular structure suggestive of a bullfight arena. As the wings of the set turned slowly to meet the matchpoints for the next act, a singer would step onto the staircase to exit, as if boarding a moving train. For Act III, the designer created the look of the mountains by using the architectonic qualities of blue silk. The silk mountain curtain was attached to battens by Velcro(TM); the scenic transition was achieved when running stagehands ripped off the curtain, with the liquid, shimmering flow of color following with a buoyant, weightless life of its own.
For La Boheme, Yeargan designed a dramatic transition, telescoping from the intimately framed space of the garret scene down to the stage floor. There, the crowded movement and business of a Parisian street providedthe human texture for the lyrical entry of the Cafe Momus scene. Sections of counters and banquettes entered, turning and swiveling to join together as the actors, without missing a beat, took their seats as patrons or became waiters and bartenders.
Yeargan designed other transitions into Streetcar with projections, using these images to complete the elements of tone and mood. "We wanted to give it a more expressionistic, abstract, even windswept quality," he explains. "We started with the projections being more photographic, but then we went away from that, because they were too distracting. The only one we kept was the Belle Reve scene, with the moss and the trees." A huge wraparound white plastic rear-projection screen was hung in back of the set. In front of this was placed a white scrim, which softened the light and smoothed the texture. "We didn't have enough projectors to crossfade the way we would have liked to," says Yeargan, "and [lighting designer] Thomas Munn went through hell to keep them synchronized. I thought he did a beautiful job with this."
Always on the run between projects in various stages of development, Yeargan is starting the designs for a Broadway musical directed by Martha Clarke and produced by the Dodgers. "The Frank Loesser people gave Martha the rights to the songs from the film Hans Christian Andersen. So she's going to do a very surreal kind of dream piece about Hans Christian Andersen." That's due a year from now, as is a little piece for Lincoln Center to be called Chekhov. Based on the Russian writer's short stories, it combines Chekhov with Scriabin, and includes a live pianist on the stage. There is also a Gershwin project in the wings.
"I tend to work in a lot of different styles," Yeargan confesses. "I never know what it's going to be. When you do a play, or any production, it's like an equation--the minute you change one of the coordinates of that equation, it's going to be different at the end, and that's the way it's going to be with a production."