The Conversation: Joe Clark

Classic Arts Features   The Conversation: Joe Clark
The Metropolitan Opera's technical director, a 30-year veteran of the company, tells Matt Dobkin about the "noble tradition" of stage-craft.

You've got a new staging of Il trittico this month, and seven new productions next season. What's the first step when you work with directors and designers?
We try to make sure they're aware of the special problems of doing opera in this theater. It's a big, big auditorium, a big stage with spe-cialized sightlines. So we discuss both an aesthetic set of issues and a purely mechanical schedule.

What are some of the concerns directors and designers have at first?
Most ask, "What can't we do in the theater?" And I always say you can do anything you want. It's really true. There's a solution to almost any theatrical problem — within reason. You may not be able to go from Meistersinger ending at 6PM on a Saturday matinee to Trittico starting at 8PM that night if the challenges of getting Trittico set and lit are so great that it can't happen. But we try to make it possible for everything to mesh with everything else.

Sounds like a challenge.
A set design is a lovely thing, but it has to be realized technically, and with most of our scenery, the structure behind the design that allows it to work in repertory is at least as complicated as the front surface, which is beautifully painted and replicates what the designer wants. But how on earth are you going to get this enormous hunk on and off the stage in a short period of time so you can get the next enormous hunk on the stage?

Will it be especially tough next year, dealing with the seven new productions?
You just have to marshal your forces. That's the only way to describe it. We will start lighting extra-early, and the shops will be extra-busy.

What specific hurdles do next season's shows pose? Any produc-tions you're most looking forward to?
They're all fascinating. And they're all radically different. Every one has its problems. Macbeth is always difficult because it has a huge chorus, and it's full of special effects. There are witches and cauldrons and visions and rain and snow and magic appear-ances — all of which require a lot of experimenting and imagination. Peter Grimes will appear to the audience as a dramatic but very simple, stark production, but it has substantial en-gineering issues, because it's very large and has to move in view. Hansel and Gretel has a complicated scene for the prop peo-ple, in the Witch's kitchen, where a great deal of food is heaved around the stage in great quantities. So that may be a challenge, but it should also be fun.

Is what you do an art form?
Oh, absolutely. Though it's really less an art than a craft, and a very ancient one. The people who paint scenery are brilliant artists, but they're craftspeople first and foremost. The realization of someone else's designs is a wonderful, noble, ancient tradition. The fun is mak-ing the artistic effect work, but being largely invisible. If you're really successful, no one even realizes that you've done it.

How did you end up in this unique job?
I studied all kinds of things — music and theater and opera and engineering. But all of that has something to do with put-ting an opera on stage. Every single thing you ever knew goes into it. And it's that perennial five-year-old mentality that says, Oh, this might be fun! The most fun thing people can ask us to do is something that we haven't done before. People will occasionally say, "Have you ever ... ?" That's when our eyes light up.

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