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The Artist as Set Designer

By · Title Image © Catherine Ashmore · Date 07/14/2016

On June 19, I saw the English National Opera’s production of “Tristan und Isolde.” Besides the cast, the house advertised its collaboration with the British-Indian artist Anish Kappoor, who doubled as the production’s set designer. Employing a famous artist as a set designer is an appealing double whammy for opera houses, promising both creative constructions onstage and a household name to attract audiences and coverage.

Kapoor is exactly the kind of artist to attract such audiences, as his large-scale public sculptures—such as “Cloud Gate” (2006) in Chicago’s Millennium Park (also nicknamed “the Bean”)—have largely been met with popular approval. Kapoor’s services have been utilized several times by opera companies in recent years: in 2012 he designed the set for the Dutch National Opera’s production of “Parsifal,” which is now being followed by this “Tristan.”

But though the ENO’s calculation is logical, Kapoor’s designs did not adapt well to live opera. For Act I, Kapoor divides the stage into three, into a kind of upside-down pyramid shape. Isolde occupies the section on the left and Tristan the one on the right; the section in the middle is left uninhabited. The redundant space between them is meant to symbolize the stark separation between the two lovers. Unfortunately, Kapoor gives no thought to whether audiences can actually see the action. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the stalls, but my view of what was going on in Tristan’s section was severely restricted.

The Pyramid in “Tristan.” · Photo Catherine Ashmore
The Pyramid in “Tristan.” · Photo Catherine Ashmore

In Act II, Kapoor brings in a huge, globe-like rock cave, which the singers can climb into. It looks a bit like an otherworldly planet, and perhaps symbolizes how when Tristan and Isolde reunite at night, they are able to enter their own private world away from the duties they have to follow during the day. The globe is a beautiful object and is reminiscent of the monumental sculptures Kapoor is known for. Less understandable, however, is how after King Mark has caught them in their illicit union, the chorus rushes on stage, dressed in medical uniforms, and straps them to hospital beds.

“Tristan und Isolde” at the English National Opera, with set design by Anish Kapoor.

The ENO is actually perfectly capable of producing fantastic sets without the aid of an artist. Their production of “Akhnaten” earlier this year was one of the most visually stunning things I have seen. I also remember the beautiful effect created by tumbling lengths of red fabric symbolizing Cio-Cio-san’s blood as she plunged a knife into her chest in the ENO’s current production of “Madam Butterfly. The company’s professional set designers are more experienced, and presumably less expensive, than famous artists. In light of the ENO’s slippery financial straits, this is a good thing to bear in mind.

Inviting a celebrated artist to design the scenery for an opera production is not a new idea. The German painter and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel was the chief designer at the Berlin Königliche Schauspiele (today’s Konzerthaus Berlin) from 1815 to 1828, where he painted formally perfect panoramic sets for more than 40 operas, ballets and plays. In the 1880s, Russian composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky were brought together with artists such as Mikhail Vrubel and Victor Vasnetsov. In 1883, the latter created exotic sets for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Snow Maiden.”

Gustav Mahler, who directed Vienna’s Hofoper from 1897 to 1907, was in close contact with the Austrian Sezession and the German Jugendstil Art Nouveau movements. Mahler employed Alfred Roller, an important member of the Sezession, as chief designer between 1903 and 1909. Meanwhile in Berlin, the director Max Reinhardt engaged several painters, including the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, to design his productions.

In 1915, Pablo Picasso collaborated with Jean Cocteau on “Parade,” a modernist ballet with music by Erik Satie. The designs by the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí for a production of “Salome” at London’s Royal Opera House in 1949 included freakish pomegranates, peacock-feather sets and surrealist costumes. The British artist David Hockney—most famous for his iconic pop art painting The Bigger Splash (1967)— has been a particularly prolific set designer. Since designing the neoclassical set and costumes in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” at Glyndebourne in 1975, Hockney has worked on “Die Zauberflöte” (Glyndebourne, 1978), “Tristan und Isolde” (Los Angeles, 1987), “Turandot”  (Chicago, 1992) and “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (Los Angeles, 1993).

“The Rake’s Progress” at Glyndebourne, with set design by David Hockney.

There are, of course, successful examples of artists working for the opera stage in recent times. Hockney’s designs for “The Rake’s Progress” at Glyndebourne in 1975 are still considered a benchmark staging of the opera. Stravinsky based his opera on William Hogarth’s series of eight paintings and engravings (1733–35). Hockney had actually already made his own version of Hogarth’s series in response to his time in New York in the 1960s, and it was perhaps his sensitivity to the original artwork’s irony and social satire which contributed to his success when designing the set. But Hockney also took a unique approach by basing his designs not on Hogarth’s paintings but the engravings he made of them. The resulting set design had a limited color palette and used large-scale cross-hatchings. Though it was unconventional, it perfectly mirrored the precise but free nature of Stravinsky’s score.

Recently, the South African artist William Kentridge directed Berg’s “Lulu” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For his set design, Kentridge used large video projections of his characteristic ink-on-paper, collage style illustrations. At definite intervals, the images flutter into place then drift away again, changing the tone of the scenery every few seconds. Kentridge made his illustrations out of four to 16 sheets of paper, collaged together. He painted each drawing as a fragment and then constructed the final image by placing each fragment on top of each other. Kentridge’s method is perfectly in keeping with the plot of the opera, as his collage drawings mirror the unstable and fragmentary character of the opera’s protagonist, the femme fatale Lulu.

“Lulu” at the Metropolitan Opera, with set design by William Kentridge.

Kentridge’s success is not surprising. Throughout his career, he has remained keenly interested in theater, which is reflected in the narrative character of his art. He is well-practiced in combining different mediums as he often fuses drawing and film.

Kapoor, on the other hand, is a sculptor. The solid physicality of his medium also makes it the most static, which hardly makes Kapoor the most suited to creating the fluid drama that opera demands. Companies need to be more careful when choosing which artists to create their sets. A famous name is not enough, nor is even being a good artist, which Kapoor is. What needs to be considered is how adaptable and sympathetic they are to the demands of the opera stage. ¶