Long Beach Opera has firmly established its reputation for intelligent iconoclasm, and that's one reason why multidisciplinary artists such as designer Marsha Ginsberg feel at home with the maverick company. A photographer and installation artist, she has been working in theater and opera for a decade now, and she thinks of her work in both the visual and performing arts as of a piece.
"I consider my set designs to be a form of artwork," says the New York-based Ginsberg, dressed in stylishly casual blacks and seated in a courtyard next to the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, where her production of Richard Strauss' "Elektra" will be seen today and Saturday.
"My work in theater begins from the specificity of the architecture of the stage space. There is a link between my photographic work and my stage work in its attention to the composition within the frame. In both mediums, I compose to the extreme edges of the frame."
Ginsberg made her Long Beach debut with a 1999 production of the Bartok opera "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" that Times music critic Mark Swed described as "astonishingly hip, interesting and original ... with sets and video that might have walked out of this year's Venice Biennale."
The current "Elektra" is directed by Ginsberg's "Bluebeard" collaborator, Roy Rallo, and conducted by Andreas Mitisek. It's no accident that Ginsberg and Rallo have reteamed for this outing.
"My sets use the space pretty aggressively, so I have to work with a director who is interested in that," says Ginsberg. "One of the things I think about is how directors like to move people around, and most of the directors I work with tend to move actors around in a nonrealistic way."
Yet Ginsberg and Rallo's shared aesthetics go beyond a nonrealistic use of space. "One of my interests is in the power of certain objects and spaces to call up emotions and memories by their reference to familiar experiences," explains Rallo, who was first struck by Ginsberg's work thanks to photographs of an installation in which she created a burned room. "I recognized a common desire to use texture and space in a very meticulous way to key into this referential language."
In "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," for example, Ginsberg created an abstracted version of a decrepit apartment constructed from shards of other dwellings. "The stairway and windows she found in an upstate New York salvage yard and we had them shipped out," recalls Long Beach Opera general director Michael Milenski. "The detail that Marsha incorporated into the 'Bluebeard' set was difficult [to achieve]. But I realized that [it] is part of the design concept, and with Marsha the concept is huge and deep."
"I favor the use of real materials and objects on stage, rather than their theatrical imitation," Ginsberg explains. "I like the way these found materials resonate. They have an aura, a history, and their use and meaning is transplanted once in place on stage."
Like Long Beach Opera, Ginsberg and Rallo are deliberately unconventional. "One of the things that we were both interested in about 'Bluebeard's Castle' was taking a piece that's traditionally epic and bringing the characters down to earth," says Ginsberg. "That was a starting point for 'Elektra' too."
Strauss' 1909 one-act opera, with libretto by the poet-playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is based on Sophocles' tragedy--which retells the story of the House of Atreus, in which the Greek King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Klytamnestra, and her lover. The demanding title role, sung by Susan Marie Pierson, portrays Elektra living with her guilty mother in the family home, plotting vengeance against her mother. She tries to enlist her sister as an accomplice, but it is not until her brother Orestes (John Packard) finally returns home that he and Elektra in turn murder Klytamnestra and her lover. Ultimately, however, Elektra does not survive her own vengeance.
It's a family drama, but not in the usual prime-time sense. Director Rallo's interpretation owes much to Freud.
"I believe that 'Elektra' is about that terrifying moment in a child's life when it realizes it is not the center of the universe, and that its parents' lives are separate from its own," says Rallo. "This is a moment that is fraught with feelings of distrust, anxiety, fear and loneliness, which each of us work through in a journey toward our own autonomy. 'Elektra' is about one person's rather horrifying journey."
To capture the magnitude of emotions involved, directors and designers typically resort to the abstract, says Ginsberg, or the fake classical. Which gave Rallo and Ginsberg something to avoid.
"He said it would be a kick to do it on an 'I Love Lucy' set or something like that," explains Ginsberg. "So we decided that we were going to make it into a house--the house of Atreus literally. Then it was really just figuring out what type of house it would be and from what period."