Saturday, February 03, 2007

"Seas go dry and the sun grows cold, but the documents must be signed." - from "The Consul," Gian Carlo Menotti

Gian Carlo Menotti died Wednesday, at the age of 95.

Most people, if they know him at all, know Menotti for his Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and, if for anything else, as founder of the Spoleto festival. You may have heard of one of his other operas (there are more, but these are the most commonly performed): The Saint of Bleecker Street, The Medium, or The Telephone.

I admit I had only vaguely heard of Amahl when I was asked to design Carnegie Mellon Opera Theatre’s season almost a dozen years ago now. I was a successful and constantly-working scenic artist, but a young set designer, with not much design experience at all under my belt, and I was anxious to build my resume.

The first show was comprised of two one-act operas: one a Puccini drama titled “Suor Angelica,” and the other a lighter, more modern (composed in 1982) comedy, “Suor Isabella.” These operas are often performed as companion pieces, and the set had to work for both. I solved the problem by designing (and painting) a set comprised of moving platforms and about six large stained glass windows, each depicting a different, and relevant to the plot(s), saint. I wasn’t thrilled with it but the director liked it well enough, and H thought it was lovely, and at the time those were pretty much the only people whose opinions I cared about.

The second opera of the season was Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul.”

“The Consul” is an English-language opera (which I thought at first was a strike against it – hello, Benjamin Britten, anyone? - but I hadn’t counted on Menotti’s genius) set in an unidentified Eastern bloc country. Magda Sorel, the heroine, attempts to procure papers to leave the country and join her husband John in freedom. She spends her days trying to avoid the secret police which are hounding her for the names of John’s political associates, and waiting - fruitlessly - at the consulate to have her visa approved.

I don’t always fall in love with shows I have designed – my senior year I designed “110 in the Shade,” the musical version of “The Rainmaker” and I not only recall none of the music from the show but if I never heard it again, it would be too soon, I do remember hating it that much. But "Consul’s" score and libretto are so heartachingly beautiful, so yearning and gorgeously intricate, but at the same time, lean and spare and strong, that I kept my score, and my tapes of the show (2 cassettes), and played them until they quite literally fell apart. I have never been able to locate a recording of the full show – one MUST exist, but I have yet to discover it. I can still remember snatches of songs, and bits and pieces of arias, but I would love to have it on CD. [I take that back – I just found a 1999 recording on Amazon, which I have ordered.]

My set design consisted of large, looming, almost columnar beige walls, which rolled and reversed and spun on moving platforms. Scenes were set using different configurations of the walls and a few props – a curtain, a cradle, a painting, some institutional chairs, a typewriter. I was very pleased with the design. I felt like I had created and captured the bleakness and oppressiveness of a police state, and yet made each setting distinctive enough that the audience could tell where the characters were, and what the significance of the space was. We ran into some technical issues – how to make sure ten-foot high walls can stand upright AND be movable? – but my TD figured out a solution and the set was built and painted without a hitch. The director loved it; the actors loved it; I loved it. (And I NEVER love my own work.)

I wonder what Menotti would have thought...


The Times obituary for Gian Carlo Menotti


Gian Carlo Menotti
July 7, 1911 – February 1, 2007


Anonymous said...

I must say, I got goosebumps reading about your set design -- what a dream job! Sigh, it sounds so wonderful, and it must have been especially so, if you loved it as you say, since we are our own worst critics. You designed Carnegie Mellon Opera Theatre's season??? ...she said in an awed, hushed voice. That sounds just amazing. Congratulations, and I'm glad you found the music on Amazon! ...95 is quite an age to reach.

lazy cow said...

Don't suppose you have any photos to show us? I'm in awe of your expertise. I can draw a reasonable facsimile of a person's face, but to design something on a large scale, that takes talent!

Anonymous said...

I love to read about your sceniic artist and set design work. I can't think of any cooler job.

What Seeeus said above about the awed, hushed voice? I second that.

tut-tut said...

Wow, I'm impressed as well. I'm going over to Amazon to get myself a copy. Why did you abandon the theatre for the library?

Sarah Louise said...

Amahl and the Night Visitors is my favorite opera.