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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Week Five: Putting it Together: Design it!

Logan is taking our Summer Opera Education Class: "Putting it Together."  We asked her to share her experiences throughout this 8-week interactive class.  Updates will be posted weekly.  Enjoy!

Week Five: Putting it Together: Design it!

Tonight, we had the chance to ask questions and gain insight on set design through a talk show-like interview between Portland Opera’s General Director Christopher Mattaliano and Set Designer Curt Enderle. We learned about the process of designing a production, how creative ideas get flowing, and we even got a sneak peak for this season’s production of Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento.

The first question asked was of course, “What is a set designer?” The obvious answer is, “The one who designs the set” but there is much more to it than that: props, scenery, mechanics, lighting, etc. are all part of this ambitious position. Mr. Enderle gave us a brief description of how he came into set design beginning in his undergraduate study. He originally studied business, but became involved in collegiate stage productions and workshops and fell in love with theater and pursued that field of study as well. By studying both theater and business, Mr. Enderle gained knowledge and skills that are perfectly suited for a set designer, such as art history and fine arts classes, computer programming languages, computer science, etc. It seemed to me that these skills were divided into two different categories of art and engineering, however they are fused together to help bring drama and music to life. Because Mr. Enderle mastered that fusion of art and engineering, he had a firm grasp on how to use backgrounds, props … to help the narrative move forward in a production.

But how does the process of designing a production begin? It all starts with a few meetings and a spark of inspiration. To genesis of a set begins when the set designer collaborates with the production director and costume designer to discuss what meaning they want to elicit from the opera, or how they want to interpret the story. This process is like chipping away at a piece of marble to get to the core and find the statue within. Sometimes, ideas discussed had to be dismissed because they moved away from the original conception of the opera. If too many ideas attach themselves and morph the process, the story becomes homogenized and lacks direction, or a specific point of view. These productions become “mushy” and lose sight of what the opera is about.

Once everyone is speaking the same language, the director sometimes presents a piece of art or an image that he/she wants the set to be designed around. The designers then return to the next meeting with more images or even thumbnail sketches of potential sets. These trials and errors evolve until a final design is chosen, and the xacto-knives come out for a scaled, 3-D model to be made.

While Mr. Enderle and Mr. Mattaliano were describing all of this to us, they graciously provided sketches and pictures for inspiration for the upcoming production of Postcard from Morocco. This opera is based on A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and takes place in a train station in a foreign land with a puppet master, his marionettes, and seven strangers, each with his or her own luggage and stories to tell. Mr. Enderle brought up three rough sketches of his idea for the train station background: the first had a plain wall with a poster, a fake potted plant, plain white chairs, and long cords dangling from the ceiling (some symbolism from the puppet master). The second was very similar, but with a few alterations and no cords. The final sketch had the back wall separated into individual sections that looked like suitcases. I won’t give everything away, but I will say that so far, the set looks pretty cool: especially how they’re currently thinking of ending the opera.

There was so much information that we learned in this class! I was hardly able to write about everything that we talked about. Even in class, we ran out of time before we could get to everything planned for us. This just goes to show that my classmates and I are a curious bunch; asking many questions and having in-depth discussions about opera. Only three weeks left for us to learn as much as we can!

Truly yours,

Logan Stewart

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