At the Opera with Ian Campbell

| March 8, 2013 | 0 Comments

The opera is set in 1170 and follows the last month of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s life and his murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

When San Diego Opera’s “Murder in the Cathedral” opens at the Civic Theatre on Saturday, March 30, it will be a “new production.” Is that a big deal? In a nutshell, yes.

All American opera companies share productions – sets and costumes – from time to time, either by renting from one another or co-producing as San Diego Opera did with four other companies to create the new opera, “Moby-Dick,” last season. Being a new opera never before performed, it was necessary to create sets and costumes from scratch.  Clearly “Moby-Dick” was a “new production” in every sense. Companies rent from one another because there is no need for each of us to own productions we may not use again for many years. It is a matter of simple economics.

“Murder in the Cathedral” is not a new opera yet it will be a new production because the concept is new, and the physical resources of sets, costumes and props will be created especially for the performances. The opera has not been previously staged in a full production in the United States so there is no existing production to rent.

A new production allows a company to make its own statement as to the way the opera will be approached. The stage director, works with set and costume designers to come up with a “look” based on the dramatic concept. Once the designers have done their homework regarding the time period in which the opera will be set they deliver preliminary concepts which are sketched, discussed, and frequently abandoned. Back to the drawing board has meaning when designing an opera.

I will be the stage director for “Murder in the Cathedral.” The opera is set in 1170 and follows the last month of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s life and his murder in Canterbury Cathedral. As I discussed it with the costume designer, Denitsa Bliznakova and set designer Ralph Funicello, we agreed that the historic setting had to be preserved. There was no point in trying to squeeze a 12th century conflict between Church and State into a 21st century setting as some European stage directors might try to do just to be different. It did not need to be made relevant, its historical setting being all that is needed.

So we settled on the interior of a cathedral. Since the opera has a large chorus, all of whom need to see the conductor, we were able to take advantage of steps leading to the altar which create good sightlines for the singers. And with pillars and some stained glass windows, the sketches looked right. Funicello set about creating a scale model while Bliznakova brought me her costume sketches, based on historical research she had done.

Becket is clothed differently in several scenes, requiring specific decisions as to what he would be wearing as he arrived from France, what he would change into, what he would wear when murdered. Artistic license is taken, naturally enough, but the historical context is respected. Once the look was established the choice of fabrics began. The cloth needs to take stage lighting well, and not appear flat and uninteresting, and Bliznakova had many choices of textures and colors available.

Once the three of us looked at the set model from all angles with little “toy” people on the set for perspective, used small lights to give an idea of how it might be lit and where we could create shadows and effects, we considered how the fabric texture and colors would look in the cathedral Funicello had designed. With a little tweaking we were finished. Once we knew it all could be built within budget, the model and plans for “Murder in the Cathedral” went to the workshops and the costume designs went to the costume shop.

The whole process took more than eighteen months of research and discussion, trial and error, budgeting and planning. It’s not quite over since we are still deciding on some furniture for Becket’s study. But compared with what has already been accomplished, that part is easy.

Now on to the rehearsals to see how it works with real people.

Tags: , ,

Category: Entertainment, Local News

About the Author ()