Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Two Chamber Operas, Part II: Dido and Aeneas--Scene and Lighting Design

Dido and Aeneas quick sketch
Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell was produced Spring Semester, 2009 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Because of renovations to the Snow Drama Theatre, we produced two small chamber operas in the Snow Black Box Theatre.  Gianni Schicchi was the first bill and Dido and Aeneas was the second.

Gianni Schicchi is set entirely indoors and Dido and Aeneas is set out of doors. The challenge here was to change the set from a 20th century Itallian bedroom to the courtyard of a Carthaginian palace set in ancient times and do it all in ten minutes.
The king of Tyre named his daughter Dido and his son Pygmalion as his joint heirs.  Dido marries the high priest Acerbas.  Upon the king's death, the people rally behind Pygmalion and name him king.  He has Acerbas put to death and Dido flees Tyre.  She lands with her attendants and those loyal to her in what is now Tunisia and asks for only enough land that can be contained within an oxhide.  The people agree and Dido cut the oxhide into very narrow strips and placed them end to end around a hill and thus founded the great ancient city of Carthage.

Aeneas is a Trojan and a survivor of the Trojan War.  He fled from Troy on a trireme and landed on Carthage.  Aeneas, according to one legend went on to found the great city of Rome.  In this way, Virgil, the poet wrote Rome into the mythology of the Trojan War.  Especially important because while the Greeks defeated the Trojans, the Romans (descended from the Trojans) subdued the Greeks.

Our Story Begins:
Dido is sorrowful and her attendant, Belinda believes it is because of her love for the traveller Aeneas.  She attempts to lift Dido's spirits and assures her that Aeneas loves her as well.  Aeneas enters the court of Dido with the head of a wild beast upon his spear from the hunt he has just returned from.  Dido at first withstands his advances but comes around and finally agrees to wed him.  They leave for another hunt.

The sorceress does not like Dido and plots with the chorus of witches and demons to destroy her.  She calls upon her elf and disguises him as Mercury and charges him to meet with Aeneas and command him to sail to Italy.  She believes in this way Dido will die of a broken heart.  It is unclear why she hates Dido.  The sorceress creates a storm which drives Dido and her entourage back to the palace for shelter.

As they leave, the elf disguised as Mercury waylays Aeneas and gives him the charge to sail to Italy.  He is distraught at the idea of leaving Dido, but doesn't want to offend the gods so he agrees to go.

Dido is heartbroken when Aeneas does not return with them and when he does come back to tell her of his mission she rebukes him.  Aeneas then tells her he is willing to incur the wrath of the gods to stay with her, but she refuses because of what she believes is his fickle nature.  Aeneas leaves and Dido sings her last aria as she takes his sword that he has conveniently left and commits suicide. 

The chorus sings a lament as Dido's body is immolated.

As we discussed this production we decided that this incarnation of Carthage would be megalithic and built over the ruins of a more refined older culture.  Part of that was conceptual and part of it was justifying the fact that we had a nicely painted faux marble floor from the first opera, Gianni Schicchi.  Richard Clifford, the director said he had an interest in ancient stele, or carved stones.

He also wanted to show the immolation on stage and asked for an altar which could be rigged with a lighting and fog effect for that purpose.

This was an interesting production to do because we had to meld two productions conceptually.  The elliptical interior dome from Gianni Schicchi would become a lighting canvas for Dido and Aeneas.  From the beginning we wanted to use it to represent the sky.

I drew the rough sketch that appears at the top of the post early in the process.  A few things changed from that sketch to the finished design, but the composition remained very close.  The first thing I addressed in this design were the stele.  I sketched three studies, all of which were ultimately not used, but they showed a direction in thought that guided us in the design process. 

Stele study #1
This stele was too primitive, too Neo-Lithic.  Even though our version of Carthage was to be a lesser civilization built on the foundations of a greater civilization, this stele went too far that direction. 

Stele study #2
I think the biggest problem with this stele was the fact that it looked like giant stacked marshmallows.

Stele study #3
For this stele I was influenced by Babylonian bas relief, but it was in fact too Bablyonian.  This stele was much closer to what the director wanted, however.  After I showed him these three stele, I suggested we use the stele to tell the backstory of Dido.  We agreed to have five stele which told the following story: 
Stele #1.  Dido and Acerbas wedded.
Stele #2.  Pygmalion slays Acerbas.
Stele #3.  Dido Flees from Pygmalion.
Stele #4.  Dido founds the city of Carthage.
Stele #5.  Dido sees Aeneas' trireme off the coast of Carthage.

Since the opera was set in North Africa, I wanted an African aesthetic.  There is very little that remains of ancient Carthage since the whole civilization was levelled after the third Punic war.  Eventually the Romans rebuilt the city and made it a Roman colony.  That city was destroyed again in 698 AD. 

Since there was no art or sculpture remaining from ancient Carthage, I looked across northern Africa for my aesthetic.  I looked at primitive African art and early Egyptian art and blended them into what I imagined Carthaginian art would have looked like.  I also had to take into account the costume design by Susan Whitfield.

I designed the stele to be ten feet tall by three feet wide and eighteen inches deep.  I also had to take into account the rake of the stage as I wanted the stele to be absolutely vertical.  We covered them with two inch blue foam and I carved them in deep relief with grinders, surform tools and hot knives, and finally sprinkled them with acetone to give them a weathered and pitted look.  Then we covered them with mastic and painted them to look like stone.

The stele were lit almost exclusively with skim light from the sides to emphasize the relief carving.  They were also placed in front of the cyclorama which was also used in Gianni Schicchi, and silhouetted throughout the play.

Stele #1--Dido and Acerbas

Stele #2--Pygmalion slays Acerbas

Stele #3--Dido flees from Pygmalion

Stele #4--Dido founds the city of Carthage

Stele #5--Dido sees Aeneas trireme approaching

The floor was the next thing I had to address.  Originally we were going to have a second deck under the Gianni Schicchi floor.  The top deck would have been held together with coffin locks and disassembled at intermission to expose the Dido and Aeneas floor.  There were many problems with this idea.  First we only had ten minutes for intermission and there simply wasn't enough time to strike the set from Gianni Schicchi and then disassemble the floor.  Second, we really had nowhere to store the pieces of the top deck, and third it was going to be cost prohibitive.  We had to come up with another solution. 

This is really where the idea that Carthage was built upon a previous more enlightened ruin came from.  The efficacy of a scene change.  The solution Richard suggested was to remove sections of floor and have sand boxes in their place.  This would change the look of the Gianni Schicchi floor and would look like a ruin.  The primitive stele and altar would then make sense.  I designed plugs in the two corners, one upstage left and the main one was the center medallion.

Center medallion plug removed, sandbox exposed, altar placed

The set for Dido and Aeneas
The lighting for Dido and Aeneas was pretty straightforward, and had to work for Gianni Schicchi as well.  Until this year, the Snow Black Box Theatre only had 76 dimmable circuits.  We have double that now.  What that meant, though was that lighting designs in that space had to be very efficient.  I designed for either 8 or 9 acting areas, plus the cyc and the dome and a few special effects.  To maximize the circuits in the space, I used twofers and color scrollers.  Using these accessories effectively doubled or tripled the capabilities in the Snow Black Box Theatre.

In these two plays I used mostly wash light for the group numbers and source four follow spot rigs from City Theatrical for the arias and duets.  For Gianni Schicchi the lighting was fairly realistic, meaning I mixed colors to "white light".  For Dido and Aeaneas, though I used much more saturate color in the lighting.

I lit the sky dome with ETC source four spotlights and color scrollers and lit the cyc with striplights.  Most of the time, the dome and the cyc were lit the same way during Dido and Aeneas.  During Gianni Schicchi, the dome was barely lit with white light, just so it glowed.

During the witches scene, I used Rosco gobo rotators on the sky dome to give a mystical feel to the stage.  I also scrolled through the blues, greens and reds as the scene progressed.

Cyc and dome

Gobo rotators on dome during witch scene
The immolation effect was a combination of set, lights and props.  I designed a chamber under the altar which held six small theatrical lights and a fog machine.  The lights were programmed in a flicker effect and the fog was not chilled so it would rise.  I designed the sides of the altar to accordian down, but Ray Versluys, our technical director suggested a better solution where the sides of the altar would be hinged from the top and pushed in to allow the fog to escape and the lights to illuminate it.  This was masked with faggots of wood which were placed around the altar and served to disapate the fog and make it look much more like smoke.  The immolation scene was quite impressive to watch.

Dido on the altar during the immolation scene
There were a few other fun things I was able to do for this play.  I taught myself taxidermy for the boars head and I repurposed a Darth Vader helmet into Mercury's winged helm.

I purchased a peccary head form from the Van Dykes Taxidermy catalog and some very good faux fur from a piece goods store in Pocatello, Idaho.  I made ears out of sticky backed pink craft foam and covered the sticky side with faux fur and shaved it close.  I created the snout, lips and eyes from sculpy and hardened them in place with a heat gun.  Next, I used spray adhesive and glued the fur to the form.  I shaved the fur around the snout, ears and eyes and shaped it over the rest of the head.  I then hacked off the neck so it would appear to be a decapitated head rather than a wall mount and I found a plastic human vertabrae that I happened to have lying around and placed it in the back.

I sealed the foam with mastic to create a substrate and prepare it for painting.  Finally I used Design Master color tool to spray the fur around the decapitation site and the 'meat' on the back.  When the head was done, I sleeved it on a spear and presented it to the actor.  All in all it was quite a gruesome prop.

"Behold, upon my bended spear..."

The random human vertabrae I happened to have lying around

Mercury's winged helm was also a gratifying piece to build.  I found a partial Darth Vader helmet at a local thrift store and repurposed it.  First I cut off half the back flare and fitted it to the front.  I used rivets and hot glue to fix it in place.  Then I built wings of coathanger wire, sculpy and craft foam and rivetted them in place.  For the finish I used copper leaf.  Susan Whitfield, the costume designer designed a mask for Mercury to finish the look.

Mercury in the former Darth Vader helmet
These two operas, Gianni Schicchi and Dido and Aeaneas were a real pleasure to design.  They were challenging because they were so different, but in the challenge often comes the reward.  I am glad I had the opportunity to work on this production with the colleagues I have in the theatre and music departments.

Production Details
Directed by Richard Clifford
Vocal Direction by Jon Linford
Orchestra Directed by Robert Teuller
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Lighting Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Technical Director: Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director: Patty Randall

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