Grand Designs | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Grand Designs
A lively discussion between Dallas Opera senior staff and the set and costume designers for the company's new production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, directed by Stephen Lawless.

Dallas Opera General Director Karen Stone: These two designers were, more or less, morally obliged, if not contracted, to do a Fledermaus for me in Graz [Austria, where she was general director of the opera house and theater from 2001 to 2003] with Stephen Lawless. And then, Stephen got asked to do a Fledermaus in Glyndebourne, and because that company didn't want him to do one immediately before in Austria, I was asked to release him from his contract. So they owed me! I had worked with Stephen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where we met 25 years ago — but how did you get to know him?

Set designer BenoêÎt Dugardyn: A friend of mine was running the Early Music Festival at Innsbruck, where Stephen was looking for a designer. My friend told him, "I know someone who would be very keen to do it, but he hasn't done much before." Stephen and I met, talked, and decided to take a chance on working together. We've done, I think, 15 productions since.

Director of Artistic Administration Jonathan Pell: Most importantly, our La clemenza di Tito in 1997, which was a stunning production.

Director of Production John Gage: Which ultimately went to Covent Garden in London.

Pell: They had done a production everyone hated, so, when they wanted to revive it the following season, they rented ours instead. (Laughter)

Associate Director of Marketing Suzanne Calvin: I know which is more expensive but, which is more difficult — period costumes or modern?

Costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth: Actually, modern costumes can be very, very hard because when you start thinking about contemporary clothing, well, just forget about it!

Calvin: Tell us how you got started in design.

Bernerth: I was a trained graphics designer and I started work in Hamburg at the State Opera, doing programs, posters, books, and what have you for seven years. After I married, I decided I needed a change of career.

Stone: She married a conductor — a conductor! — and not an unknown one.

Bernerth: And I went to work in costume design for other designers, as an assistant.

Dugardyn: I was trained as an architect. My father was an architect, my grandfather was an architect. Almost by coincidence, I got an opportunity to work at La Monnaie, the opera house in Brussels, where an opera aria brought about the independence of Belgium.

Stone: It really did, in an opera by Auber. In those days, an opera was capable of starting a revolution!

Calvin: How do you two feel about Donizetti's music?

Bernerth: We like it. I mean, I like it.

Dugardyn: I like it, too. Of course, I do.

Calvin: I was wondering: to what extent did the music drive your set design? Do you work around the director as well as with the director? (Laughter)

Dugardyn: All the ideas that Stephen came up with, as soon as I started working on the model, everything fell into place. Other times, it's been much harder. Stephen comes up with lots of very good ideas, but to make them fit into one concept is sometimes quite hard to do. I tend to try to come up with a space that is very strong but also leaves the director and cast a lot of opportunities to experiment with the different elements.

Pell: When Stephen first came here — he made his United States debut directing our production of The Marriage of Figaro in 1991, the Mozart year — we quickly established "The Lawless Law." Because he has such an incredible imagination, he comes up with ideas all the time. They don't always fit, but they are great ideas. So "The Lawless Law" was that you couldn't proceed on any of Stephen's ideas for 24 hours.

Gage: Forty-eight. My staff was told we don't order anything for 48 hours. (Laughter) But regarding your original question, BenoêÎt noted earlier today that he left "room for the lusciousness of the music." I think that's very important.

Dugardyn: When I visited the Globe Theater, I learned that in Shakespeare's time people didn't say they were going to watch a play; they were going to hear a play. I think this sort of opera, Donizetti's opera, you come to hear, even if you are going to see something truly wonderful.

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