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German Scenic Designer : Schneider-siemssen: An Operatic Traveling Man

January 23, 1986|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Music Writer

Halfway through a busy day of meetings, scenic designer Guenther Schneider-Siemssen stopped at the offices of Music Center Opera to talk about the problems of designing a new production of Verdi's "Otello."

The German designer, for three decades a collaborator with conductors like Herbert von Karajan in such operatic centers as Vienna, Milan, Munich, New York and Buenos Aires, has now been in Los Angeles for four days, completing the set and lighting designs for the opening production of the 1986 fall season of Music Center Opera.

To be staged by Goetz Freidrich and conducted by Lawrence Foster, "Otello" will open the season Oct. 7.

First of all, Schneider-Siemssen said, seated at one end of a long and elegant conference table in one of the main rooms shared by the opera company with a financial organization, there are never problems of "concept."

"No, concept is something we always have enough of," the 59-year-old veteran designer said, aided occasionally by a translator. "Ideas are always there. And new ideas. I can design a 'Fledermaus' in three places, and use three different concepts. Or I can take the same concept to a new location, and realize it in a new way.

"No, the first problem, here and everywhere, is money (the working budget for the sets for 'Otello' is $300,000)."

Having said that, and having also specified that fund raising is not his concern and that "the cost of a project is never written into my contract," the ruddy-faced chief designer of the Vienna State Opera went on to describe in non-financial terms the "Otello" he has designed for Music Center Opera.

Other than that it is visually stylized and encompasses a single-unit design, there is nothing startling about this "Otello," the designer said.

"In the first scene, across the back of the set, a wall of metal faces the port of Cyprus, that wall signifying the world of men and war.

"Later, through an opening in the wall, we see a garden, and a world of gentleness beyond. At the end of Act I, the wall becomes a ramp for the lovers."

By now a veteran of the world's major opera-producing companies--the Deutsche Oper Berlin, La Scala in Milan, the Bolshoi and the Met in New York, among others--Schneider-Siemssen has traveled the world since his debut production, Menotti's "The Consul" in Salzburg, in 1951.

Indeed, in these 35 years, he admitted, he has seldom stopped traveling, though he regularly repairs to his home and family--and principal job--in Vienna.

"Traveling is a necessity. It is the only way I can work," Schneider-Siemssen said matter-of-factly. "In order for me to create a production in, for instance, Los Angeles, I must make at least three visits to that place.

"First, I must see the theater situation before I start--examine the space, the backstage, measure the openings. Then, after I have built the model of the set, I must return to check out all the details on the site, talk to the technicians in every department and make sure all the people are prepared.

"Finally, when I come back for the performances, everything must be tested, for function and quality.

"Then, I stay until the show opens."

The most crucial element in set design, Schneider-Siemssen believes, is lighting. That is the reason he prefers to create his own lighting scheme, as he will here.

"Lighting makes mood and atmosphere," he says, unequivocally, taking from a file folder a photo of the stage-model for Act II of "Otello."

"Here, behind a bank of blinds, lighting creates a feeling of oppressive heat during the day on Cyprus."

Lighting will also contribute to the illusion of a storm in the opening scene of the opera, the designer says, declining to describe further the technology that will make that storm materialize on the Pavilion stage.

What has made Music Center Opera materialize, after 19 years of winding up, Schneider-Siemssen believes, is very important. "After all," he says, now speaking mostly in uninterrupted English, "Los Angeles is the second-largest city of the United States, and one of the great cities of the world.

"It needs a proper opera company, with its own chorus and orchestra. Many smaller cities of this country have such a company--San Diego, for instance. Peter Hemmings (executive director of Music Center Opera) is making an important beginning here, with the support of important people who love art and who have control of the money to build a company.

"This is the time, for all the civilized and educated people who live here, to make this happen. For many years you have had the (Los Angeles) Philharmonic. Now, what is needed is opera."

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