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 “Tannh’user” 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.
“Frank doesn’t know about set design,” Conklin said candidly, while all the same lauding what architects of Gehry’s caliber are bringing to the field. “He has an entirely new way of looking at things, and he forces everyone to think about what scenery is. The theater world gets provincial and incestuous, and all of a sudden other thinkers who think about what space means and what it is actually saying get involved.”
But designing a set seen only frontally by the audience in a proscenium theater requires a different sensibility from that used to create a building experienced in three dimensions, as well as an altered mindset about the perception of color and texture. Netherlands Opera director Audi insists that to work effectively in opera architects must also understand the theatrical process and the relationship between the cast and the set. “It’s not enough to make a sculpture and hope that something will happen in front of it,” Audi says.
An unusual degree of close collaboration with a team of stage and musical directors, lighting and costume designers and choreographers is also required ahead of an opera’s performance. This can pose difficulties for star architects with other large-scale commitments. Audi recently asked Hadid to work on a production of Hector Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” but he said she was unable to devote the requisite amount of time to the project.
“Frank Gehry is not going to come and sit in the theater for three days” while a set is tweaked during rehearsals, Conklin says. Gehry didn’t. The architect, currently engaged in the completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and a steady flow of new commissions, never actually made it to Bard for either the rehearsals or the performances. Instead, he worked on refining intricate models for the “Osud” set in his Los Angeles office and sent partner Craig Webb to oversee its final form.
Webb says he found the challenge exhilarating, particularly since working on an ephemeral stage set involves few of the functional constraints of a building, such as ensuring that the roof doesn’t leak and that building materials stand up to wear and tear over time. Libeskind, who has wrangled fiercely in recent weeks over the ultimate shape of the World Trade Center site, also speaks of opera set design almost as if it provides an escape from his daily grind. “I don’t have to work with contractors, investors, politicians, community boards,” he said by telephone. “I work with musicians. It’s a very creative and fun thing. It’s about the pure poetry of the performance. It’s not about 10 million square feet of density.”
The budgets for opera sets—and their design fees—are infinitely smaller than those of the building projects that these celebrated architects are accustomed to working with. “It’s a lot of fun,” Webb says, “but it’s nothing we’d go into for profit.”
The total price of the set for “Osud” was about $200,000, he says, a tiny fraction of what the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles will have cost. It is rare that the sets for any opera cost more than $1 million, according to Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization for opera companies. “Even at the high end, it’s still a heck of a lot less than building a building,” he says.
Tight economic times have forced many opera companies to become more conservative in their productions, according to set designer Conklin, although some are still eager to create new opportunities for cutting-edge architects to push the boundaries of set design. “It’s a valuable injection of energy into this whole world, but the money and practical consequences can be difficult,” Conklin says.
Webb says Gehry Partners was interested in opera work because the firm has designed several theaters, and working on a set offered the opportunity to experience the building from the user’s perspective.
Netherlands Opera artistic director Audi sounded more cynical. Architects “want to be involved because it’s glamorous and sexy and gets them publicity,” he said. “That’s not good enough. You need to do it because you’re fundamentally engaged.”
Libeskind’s affinity with the musical world stems from his childhood as an accordion prodigy who trained as a concert pianist before taking up architecture. In 2001, Libeskind did the stage set and costumes for Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Saarland State Theater. Last year, he did the sets for Olivier Messiaen’s “St. Francis of Assisi” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, to mixed critical response.
“The sets … had a grim beauty, but they found no rapport with the joyous spirit of the opera,” New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross wrote. “When I found myself thinking of a Monty Python skit, the spell was broken.” Nonetheless, Libeskind is in demand for more sets and is talking with the Welsh National Opera about sets for other works by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu.
The flurry of operatic involvement by architects such as Libeskind, Hadid and Gehry seems a logical development to leading set designer George Tsypin, who trained as an architect in Moscow and now works for opera houses all over the world. “Architects are becoming more and more theatrical,” Tsypin said. “They hate that word, but a lot of them are getting away from a timeless notion of architecture and trying to create almost a show. One day we’ll say a building was ‘directed’ by an architect instead of ‘designed.’ It’s an event.”