A Behind-the-Scenes Look At The Intricate World Of Opera Theatre Production Design

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“I enjoy solving problems—getting a picture from a designer and figuring out how to make that happen in three dimensions, in real life. It’s a complicated puzzle to put together every night,” says Steve Ryan, director of production and operations at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He has fulfilled some odd requests over his years building sets. And during Opera Theatre’s upcoming 2017 season, there will be a wealth of new ones, as all four shows, “Madame Butterfly,” “The Trial,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Titus,” run concurrently.

“You can come for a weekend in June and see all four shows in one weekend,” he says. “We run “Madame Butterfly” one day, then “The Grapes of Wrath,” and then “The Trial” that night. We’re constantly putting sets together and gathering props and costumes, putting everything together and then dismantling it. We’re a true repertory company.”

Ryan is responsible for gathering designs from directors and designers, and once complete, the designs are handed over to the various departments under him: scenes, props, costumes, wigs and makeup, sound and more. “The design teams are not concerned with what the other productions look like—and we don’t ask them to be. That’s what we do in the production department: we see what we can roll up and store so that we can make these four unique productions logistically fit together.”

This has been the crux of Ryan’s work with Opera Theatre for 22 years now. “I think of getting ready for the season as building a clock all year,” Ryan says. “All the pieces of that clock have to work together so that the audience experience is perfect: a perfect drink at the tent, an usher who says ‘Good evening,’ the perfect light cue that starts the opera. At the end of the night, all of the pieces combine to create the best audience experience.”

Keep reading as Ryan provides a behind-the-scenes preview—quite literally—of what goes into creating the visual world for each of the four shows in Opera Theatre’s 2017 Festival Season.

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Madam Butterfly costume sketch by costume designer Candice Donnelly

“Madame Butterfly”
For “Madame Butterfly,” the setting is Japan at the turn of the century, but in our production that world will be realized in a somewhat abstract way. We set the tone of the production by not making the world on stage strictly literal. The scenic elements are made to look as if they’re made out of origami paper—fragile but beautiful. It’s easy to do in a scaled model. But our job in the production department is to take that model and reproduce it in real life. We’ve had to figure out how to scale everything up to make the origami paper look right and to find a material that would be durable, yet still look like fragile paper. Our painters came up with the idea to create a stencil to make the paper pattern for all of the scenic treatments. There’s a mountain on the floor made of this “origami paper” that will get changed out every night as other shows rotate across the season.

The costume designer found these amazing vintage kimonos for the performers to wear. The director and the designers also wanted to help people identify which characters are which by selecting color ranges: some will only be in orange kimonos or varying shades of blue. That’s one way a designer can help tell the story.

The music in this production is absolutely stunning, and the tragedy at the end is gut-wrenching. Musically, it takes you on that honest journey of love. You will feel every note of a relationship starting and ending. Everyone has relationships, so you can relate to it whomever you are. That’s why people come to see ‘Butterfly.’ It’s such an honest range of emotions.

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Grapes of Wrath costume sketches by costume designer James Schuette

“The Grapes of Wrath”
This is a new version of an opera that originally premiered in 2007 in Minneapolis. In its previous production, the design was very elemental: the entire opera centered around the director trying to move a truck so everyone in the audience could see the singers’ faces. The challenge was about where to put the truck on stage.

Allen Moyer, our set designer—who also designed that original production—was adamant that there be no truck on stage this time around. The librettist, composer and director all agreed with that approach. So now they’ve actually designed the opera so that it takes place as a story being told in a 1930’s soup kitchen instead. The audience has to mentally conjure the rest of that image. As soon as you get the audience to use their collective imagination, you draw people into the story as everyone has to focus. People are really going to be focusing on the words that the performers are singing rather than if they’re able to get off the truck, and that’s going to put more of an emphasis on each character’s role in the story.

That original production was like watching opera with a wide-angle lens. With this new production, they’ll get to look at it through a zoom lens, tightly focusing in on each character.

THE TRIAL by Philip Glass ; Libretto by Christopher Hampton ; World Premiere ; Johnny Herford as Josef K ; Paul Curievici as Titorelli / Flogger / Student (Berthold) ; Amanda Forbes as Fraulein Burstner / Leni ; Michael Bennett as Guard 1 (Franz) / Block ; Rowan Hellier as Frau Grubach / Washerwoman (Wife Of Court Usher) ; Directed by Michael McCarthy ; Designed by Simon Banham ; Lighting Designed by Ace McCarron ; Music Theatre Wales ; Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK ; 7 October 2014; Credit: Clive Barda / ArenaPAL ; www.arenapal.com

The Trial Photo by Clive Bardon

“The Trial”
This is an interesting piece from the production perspective as the design is extremely consistent with the world premiere which got rave reviews when our co-producing partner, Music Theatre Wales, produced it twice in Great Britain. So, we’re actually doing very little new with the opera. While we are building a new set, adapted from that original British design, we have also simplified things. For costumes, we have fittings to size the original costumes for our singers. For props, we have the benefit of using the same ones from the world premiere. Our production of “The Trial” does feature a new cast, but we are not creating as many brand-new assets. That’s an unusual position for us to be in, since we typically build everything from scratch.

The really exciting draw for the audience is Philip Glass, who is maybe the most famous composer of our time. Add to that the fact that this is the American premiere of this opera, and audiences are definitely in for a treat.


Titus costume sketch by costume designer Leslie Travers


The costumes for this particular production are 18th-century period, and we’re crafting some beautiful pieces for it. You have items like peasant shirts, breeches, waistcoats—that’s something that most of our stitchers love to build. It’s a very tailored look. Scenically, the designer Leslie Travers has come up with a concept that is very strong. There’s a 60-foot-wide eagle we made that contributes to the dramatic action. It’s made out of carved foam, and our scenic artists are in the process of making every feather.

Without giving too much away about the plot, for this story to progress, things on the set need to break or burn, or look like they’ve been destroyed … and then at the next performance, they need to reappear. So, we’ll be destroying things and rebuilding them all for the next show all in the same day.

Cover photo by Clive Bardon

This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned organization. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing. Photos courtesy of those listed.

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