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Inside job

Prominent architects are taking high-profile assignments indoors: designing lavish sets for operas. Both they -- and the opera companies they work for -- face challenges trying to give the art form an exciting new look.

August 17, 2003|Michael Z. Wise | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — When the opening curtain rose last month at the American premiere of Leos Janacek's opera "Osud," the audience burst into applause to acknowledge Frank Gehry's debut as a set designer. But while Gehry's exuberant architectural vision may be widely celebrated as unique, his foray onto the stage puts him in a coterie of other architects already injecting new energy into opera's look.

Daniel Libeskind, in the midst of work on the new World Trade Center site in New York, is busy drawing up sets for a new cycle of Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London as well as a production of Luigi Nono's "Intolleranza" at the Saarland State Theatre in Germany.

Zaha Hadid, whose dramatic style and penchant for flowing Issey Miyake outfits frequently earn her the tag of architectural diva, designed zigzag sets this year in Austria for Beat Furrer's opera "Desire," based on the Orpheus myth.

Gehry's partner Edwin Chan is designing sets for a coming production of Wagner's "Tannhauser" at the Los Angeles Opera. David Rockwell, architect of the Kodak Theatre, who did the sets for Broadway musicals "Hairspray" and "Rocky Horror Show," is weighing a proposal to do a new production of Bertolt Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" with an East Coast opera company. And the artistic director of the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi, said he has talked with Rem Koolhaas about doing sets, but they have yet to agree on any collaboration.

Does all of this activity signal a convergence between attention-getting contemporary ar- chitecture and theater? Opera set designer John Conklin, who has worked at the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, recalls lecturing on set design at the Southern California Institute of Architecture a few years ago and finding students there thinking about architectural work "almost as stage productions; seeing that people were moving through spaces and that architecture had a text that had a dramatic effect."

Entering a project designed by Gehry, Libeskind or Hadid can be an all-encompassing, theatrical experience consciously manipulated by architects who view their buildings as works of art. Arnold Aronson, professor of theater arts at Columbia University, sees Libeskind's master plan for Manhattan's ground zero as having aspects of stagecraft, since it creates a strong visual effect when viewed from a distance and a heightened experience when members of the public -- or actors -- move through it. "You're creating a world" in designing a stage set, Aronson says. Libeskind calls opera set design a "paradigm of the city."

Of further allure to architects is storytelling in opera set design, something that optimally involves thinking both metaphorically and temporally. Much symbolic architecture, like government buildings or memorials, is encoded with meaning, so venturing into set design is hardly a leap for architects seeking such public commissions.


Although the recent architectural focus on opera may appear unusual, there is a long tradition of architects working in theater and in opera in particular. The 19th century German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel created sensational scenery for Mozart's "The Magic Flute." The Russian constructivists Vladimir Tatlin and Konstantin Melnikov made their own operatic spectacles, as did the 20th century Americans Norman Bel Geddes and Joseph Urban. Recent decades have witnessed an additional crossover into opera from the visual arts, with artists David Hockney, Maurice Sendak, Louise Nevelson and Anish Kapur all designing sets.

Gehry's own opera debut took place July 25 at the curvaceous new Fisher Center for the Performing Arts he designed at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Cost constraints eased his voyage into new terrain, since a single set was used for all three acts of the rarely performed "Osud," with a mere change of backdrops to indicate the progression of time and move of location from a spa to a house to a conservatory.

The set's most significant component was a steep and fragmented floor covered in aluminum that echoed the arts center's own silvery exterior. Three large sculptural forms loomed in the background -- one solid brown shape resembling a tree or female figure along with translucent elements recalling clouds and another reminiscent of a flower or body part. "Osud's" strange story line -- the title means "fate" in Czech -- lent itself to Gehry's abstract approach.

To help steer Gehry away from practical pitfalls, John Conklin, assistant art director at Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York, consulted from the outset. For example, Gehry wanted the protruding raked stage to be even steeper for dramatic effect, but Conklin advised that such an angle would be unsafe for the singers. As it was, on opening night cast members looked warily downward to make certain they didn't trip on the stage's multiple, fractured levels.

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