When The Phoenix begins performances at Houston Grand Opera April 26—or, to be more exact, when The Phoenix, or The Operatic Adventures of Lorenzo Da Ponte on Two Continents in Two Acts—the world premiere from composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird will take audiences into the world of Mozart’s librettist Da Ponte. And like any good backstage musical, it will feature some revealing point-of-view sets, from designer David Farley.
Working on the world premiere of anything is always an exhilarating balancing act, and perhaps no more so than the world premiere of an opera—especially one with as epic a subject as The Phoenix. Following the trials and tribulations of Da Ponte after he was banished from Venice for a scandalous life (one that involved being a priest and poet with a secret family), the opera finds him writing the libretti for Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro, before eventually turning to New York City and establishing its first opera company in 1833.
We spoke to Farley about his designs, working based on just a libretto, and representing the rehearsal process on stage.
On designing without having the whole show completed.
I’ve done my fair share of new plays, new musicals, but this is certainly my first new opera. I guess the striking difference for me is never having really heard it. Throughout the design process—which is way advanced from other shows, having to deliver almost a year before we start production—the piece was being finished, so there were some bits of what the music might be right. I’ve seen it come to life to a certain extent in the rehearsal room, listening to the chorus, and that’s been fabulous but the sitzprobe was the first time I ever got a flavor.
On designing operas within the opera.
There’s a lot going on because of the opera in the opera. The guys putting the show on, then cutaways to people in the wings commenting on what’s going on onstage. These things become very clear delineations to aesthetically hit, and technically, jumping from so many incredible locations. There’s a fairly large time span which covers some fairly major shifts in costume fashion as well! So making sure all of that chronology works and makes sense and can be understood from the audience. That was the big thing, and cracking the dynamic of how to go from a presentational scene onstage to them changing the scene, as if we’re backstage with them as someone’s having an argument in the dressing room and someone is commenting on how many wives did this man have and how many children could he possibly have scattered across the world. And once that was solved, it came into place quite quickly and I was able to focus on a lot of costume changes.
On digging deep into the research.
The research was an awful lot of fun, looking at period theatres and period theatre technology. And some of these places that have been restored, like the amazing little theatre in Versailles, which is a gorgeous example of late-1700s theatrical technology. I was looking at that and other examples when I was designing this, and working with the paint shop who produce the cloths, getting them to approach this as traditionally as possible. Which was an awful lot of fun and one of our “takes” is this is supposed to be a rehearsal, so a lot of the cloths are incomplete to show the techniques of painting