Problem

Wagner's four-opera, 15-hour, The Ring of the Nibelung, is an enormous undertaking, no matter when you do it or where. “The Ring Cycle has several levels working at the same time — the mythological level and the plot line and a symbolic level,” says Michael Levine, who designed scenery for all four and directed one for the Canadian Opera Company (COC). “It is a very complicated balance of myth and music.” It would be the largest production undertaken by the COC, involving a 141-member production staff.

Each opera stands alone, but they connect thematically, and scenic elements reappear. A consistent vision is important, but what if you're designing them for four different visionary directors, including filmmakers Atom Egoyan (The Valkyrie), François Girard (Siegfried), and opera director Tim Albery (Twilight of the Gods)? And what if, just what if, you design three of the four for an opera house that isn't yet built? “We were dealing with a ground plan of a non-existent theatre,” says Levine.

The COC worked in the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto from 1961 until the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006. “It would have been hugely ambitious to put them all in the new Centre at once,” notes former COC tech director Julian Sleath. So the COC presented three — all but The Rhinegold — in three consecutive years at the Hummingbird. “There were three operas under our belt built for a different space and one yet to be built, directed, and fit,” explains Levine.

Levine designed the three, knowing The Four Seasons would have more storage space, a squarer opening, more depth, and a better fly system. The COC always rotated two operas at the Hummingbird. These were built with storage limitations in mind. But when Rigoletto and The Valkyrie opened together, storing an opera built for the new space wasn't easy.

At the same time, because none of the operas were done together before, the process of moving scenery from one batten to another to make the four work in repertory complicated matters at the new house. It didn't help that stages for two of the four were raked, two flat. Sleath says scene changes were rehearsed but not in the right sequence.

Meanwhile, the COC suffered the normal pains of any new space. “We were still commissioning dimmers when the operas opened,” says Sleath. And there were problems that might have happened anywhere: budget limits, for instance, and pyrotechnics — not easy when a singer in some fire scenes is?allergic to smoke.

Solution

Levine says that, by directing as well as designing one of the operas, he was able to create a structure that other directors could use as a springboard. The Ring Cycle transpires over several generations, something none of the directors wanted to express naturalistically. But it was also important to Levine that symbols be accessible and that the audience didn't sense the problem-solving apparatus and could become involved in the story.

Levine designed the four productions to fit within each other. Parts of floors could be removed to create new floors, for instance. “Although I designed them year by year, I was thinking about them together,” he says. Reusing materials, from the rake to small details, contributed to unity and helped resolve budget issues. “We reused elements, but the elements transformed,” Levine explains. “Every element went through a rigid series of meetings with various departments to get costs down.”

Siegfried involved a series of objects floating in the air, something solved by four curtains; aircraft cables on the downstage curtain were separated every 19.68" (50cm) and on the next one every 11.81" (30cm), and down, so the stage appeared deeper. Linking wires from one curtain to another kept them from turning unpredictably.

The world disintegrates around the characters, becoming less concrete as the story unfolds. Costumes that disintegrate over time helped unify the productions. After designing three of the operas, Levine returned to The Rhinegold, redesigning it to accommodate the journey of the other three.

“We adapted the proscenium of the old theatre to be more like the proscenium of the new one and adapted to the fly situation at the Hummingbird,” Levine says. Sleath adds that they sometimes stored scenery there in the loading?bay or in a rented tent.

Using truss as side lighting towers made it possible to have a flat floor lighting rig on one side of the?tower and lighting for the raked stage on the other. The towers were on chain hoists, and by lifting and turning them 180°, it wasn't necessary to re-rig between operas.

Ontario-based motion control systems company Niscon Inc. adapted some of COC's old winches to run from a Niscon control system, enabling a lifting bridge element?to be used in multiple positions without changing bridles and suspension points. The company also created artificial fire by projecting flames onto white costumes and then used smoke effects after the allergic singer made her exit.

Conducted by the late Richard Bradshaw, The Ring Cycle opened to critical acclaim and played to mostly sold-out houses. The new house won raves for acoustics and intimacy. “The productions were unified by illustrious Canadian designer Michael Levine's scenic vision and David Finn's lighting. Mr. Levine's modulations of physical scale, and his use of flowing materials and bodies, gave this…production intellectual weight and sensual character,” the Toronto Globe and Mail said.

“At the end of the day, solutions came out of the cooperation and collaborations of people working on the shows,” concludes Sleath.

If you have encountered a problem while designing or building a concert, event, exhibit, or play, please tell us about it at davi@comcast.net.