Two for the Road | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Two for the Road
The operatic journey of married artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, production designers of The Dallas Opera's new production of Nabucco.

Playbill: How did you first connect with General Director Karen Stone?

Frances Bagley: She sent us an e-mail. Tom and I had both imagined how exciting it would be to do sets for some sort of production. But it's the kind of thing that, as artists deep into their career, you don't think you can necessarily take on without a lot of hand-holding.

Tom Orr: It was a surprise that she called. But we thought, "Well, gosh, let's see what she has to say."

Playbill: What was the biggest question in your minds?

Bagley: We knew we had to have guidance because the learning curve was so great. And she said, "Oh, we have that solved — we have the most wonderful technical person around who will work with you throughout the process." And that was Drew Field. He has made sure that the decisions we've made are workable both in the Music Hall and within the context of an opera. He basically taught us Stage Design 101.

Orr: We'd come up with something and he would say, "That's great, but it's not going to fit," or, "It needs to be this height in order to be done at all." That really streamlined the process.

Playbill: You've worked on large, institutional artworks in the past. Is this the biggest work of art you've ever created?

Bagley: It's not the biggest in size but it's far beyond anything else we've done in complexity because it has to move and function and keep changing.

Orr: It's a huge collaborative thing. And you're collaborating with many other artists, technical personnel ...

Playbill: Even people who are no longer alive.

Orr: (laughing) True! That's one of the biggest collaborations of all.

Bagley: We found ourselves thinking about Verdi and why he made certain decisions. Why did he come up with this? What does that mean? What are the reasons behind this? Verdi's decisions guided ours.

Playbill: Since it was not going to be a stationary artwork, did that aspect make you look at it in a different way?

Orr: Yes.

Bagley: No. I'm surprised that you would say "yes" because I think we approached it, individually and collectively, almost exactly the way we would approach a collaborative public artwork or large installation.

Orr: Okay. So why did I say, "Yes?" I think because it's more complex than anything I've ever done. We had to take into account all sorts of things I don't normally have to deal with, like sound.

Bagley: Maybe I'm taking the word "approach" differently. We first listened to the music — many times — and then we looked at other productions, not to be influenced but to see how it laid out, how other people had organized it. But as we watched other productions, we began to see what we didn't want to do more than what we did want. So I guess I'll have to contradict myself: We don't normally approach our art by researching what another artist has done. That's definitely a difference.

Playbill: As artists you are aware, in your core, what other artists have done. So, though you may not actively research it — that knowledge is still within you.

Orr: You see what I mean about everything being complex? Jeez. It's complex just to talk about!

Playbill: Speaking of which, how did your discussions with stage director James Robinson or with Karen Stone affect your vision?

Orr: From the beginning, I think we were all on the same page.

Bagley: One reason we decided to do it was that Karen's vision was abstract, which was the only way we could do it. You certainly are in Solomon's Temple and the palace in Babylon...

Orr: ...but in abstract renderings of these places.

Bagley: They are real characters. But they might look as if they are extracted into a timeless edition of the story. It's much more stylized.

Playbill: Were there unexpected hurdles?

Orr: We've been told many times that we can't become devoted to one aspect of our design because things might change. If something doesn't work, in Dallas or elsewhere, we have to be ready for that. And that might be a little difficult. That goes back to the whole collaborative thing: If it's not right, it has to be changed, no matter how much you want it in there.

Bagley: And then, of course, the director is moving people around on these sets — although Jim Robinson worked very closely with us. One thing that we've both been impressed with in working with people from the opera is their open-mindedness and willingness to explore new ideas.

Orr: And they're really in touch with all the new technical things that are going on in the theater, which is not something I knew much about.

Playbill: You sound as if you're ready to move into lighting design.

Orr: Well, I've always been interested in that.

Bagley: Tom, your work has always had some element of shadow or visual illusion. Light and shadow are things you really gravitate towards.

Playbill: How did this collaboration affect your collaboration?

Orr: We're used to collaborating; we cut deals constantly! She writes something for me; I build something for her.

Bagley: Or, you think of an idea and I make suggestions. There's probably not much in our daily lives that doesn't pass through the other's head, because we're always communicating and very much trust each other's sensibilities. Although that doesn't mean we don't argue. You have to have that kind of "banter" in order for a collaboration to grow. Everybody who knows us knows that our relationship is a big part of our work. Tom and I are, evidently, both the type of people who work well in a team.

Playbill: Do you still find mysteries about each other?

Orr: Oh, yeah.

Bagley: (laughing) Sometimes we look at each other and think, "Who are you?"

Orr: "What are you doing in this house?"

Bagley: I think that's part of the secret. Even though we work well together and there are so many aspects of our personalities that are similar, there are others that are exact opposites — which helps keep it alive and mysterious.

Playbill: What is it you strive for every time you create a work of art?

Bagley: It's not something I reach every time. The greatest thing an artwork can do is to live without the artist who created it. If you think back about the great works, it's those that are still alive in our minds. So I hope that I create a work with enough life that it doesn't need me to support it.

Orr: What's important to me is that everything I do is taken seriously because I'm dead serious about what I'm doing — I've signed on for life.

Frances Bagley and Tom Orr are represented by Marty Walker Gallery.

Suzanne Calvin is Associate Director of Marketing/Media and Public Relations for The Dallas Opera.

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