Ever ask a student of design or architecture, why is it that they decided to become an architect? What is it that attracted them to this particular profession? Their response will almost always start with a memory, an experience that stuck with them, brought about through the design of a space. Ask an actor why they chose the theatre, they will recall the first ever piece they saw on stage. A musician will name a song, a fashion designer an item of clothing – the list goes on.
Oh how impressionable we all are.
And really, there is much to be said about creating such spaces and experiences, about having that influence over people. It can only be addictive once mastered. But how about the interpretation of other creative forms, to create influential spaces? Where the creative direction is seemingly set in stone but it’s your job to bring to life the space in which it is to occur, a space in which bodies with purpose and direction will move. Well, that’s the job of a set designer. Whether it be opera, ballet, fashion, music, film or theatre, they bring to life the stories written by others.
And my goodness, have some done a fantastic job.
In 2010, The Dutch National Opera presented ‘A Dog’s Heart’, by Alexander Raskatov (1953). With musical direction from Martyn Brabbins and directed by Simon McBurney of Complicite, the piece was a success and what contributed to this was of course the phenomenal set design by Michael Levine.
The original novel from which it had been adapted was a piece of social commentary by Mikhail Bulgakov, published in 1925 when communism appeared to be weakening in the Soviet Union. There seemed to be reference to communism’s misguided attempt to transform man. And it is clear that in Levine’s set, this element was used to create a transformative space, often unbalanced and tying in with the discomfort the musical score presents. The unpredictable nature of the piece reinforces the tumultuous history and literature behind it, further heightened by the set.
Levine has played with scale, making the ceiling and door height of the central room far higher than natural, emphasising the grandeur of the house in which the conflict takes place. Furthermore, the projection of striking images allows for the back flat to operate as a visual stimulus, reinforcing the actions taking place on stage and working in conjunction, yet sometimes intentionally against, the movement of the singers.
What brought this story to life and into the ‘now’ is the shifting mechanical back flat, allowing for constant metamorphosis on stage as the scenes and times change. Playing with the audience’s perception of what is real and what is a construct, the set piece slowly loses it’s grandeur in the formal sense, and becomes far more intimidating as a mechanical wall to the outside. What Levine does here, by breaking up the space in such a way, is perhaps comment on the social construct that was communism, and the weakened state thereof at the time. As the Opera continues, the set deteriorates and loses its aesthetic quality, much like communism in 1925. He plays with memory and taps into a history rich with conflict, and presents it in a very modern way, subsequently allowing the audience to relate and make connections to happenings in today’s society.
Not only has Levine translated the political context onto the stage, together with McBurney’s direction he’s managed to convey Mikhail Bulgakov’s somewhat satiric writing as well.
Now to me, that’s clever design.
 “CLASSICAL ICONOCLAST.” ENO A Dog’s Heart – Review. November 21, 2010. Accessed August 11, 2017. http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/eno-dogs-heart-review.html.
 “A Dog’s Heart Alexander Raskatov (1953).” A Dog’s Heart | Dutch National Opera & Ballet. Accessed August 11, 2017. http://www.operaballet.nl/en/opera/2016-2017/show/dogs-heart.