IU Opera Production (9) – Set designer Erhard Rom on designing for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính

 The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

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‘Sneak preview’ of the set for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính by Erhard Rom. Photo courtesy of Erhard Rom.

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

The House is packed. In silence, the curtains begin to roll up. The audience break into an applause. In most cases, you know what it means: it means that they are happy with what they see on stage – a beautiful set. Here foreseeing the world premiere performances of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính on February 7, 8, 14, 15 of 2014.

Once the curtains are up, one of the most excited people is the set designer. Erhard Rom talks about his design of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính.

What was your first reaction on hearing about The Tale of Lady Thị Kính project?

I was very intrigued with the sound of the project when Vince called me and described the new opera The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh. The fact that it was specifically based in Vietnamese culture, employing a folk tale important to the people of Vietnam, but universally appealing, was something that immediately captivated me. I knew it would be something new and fresh for American audiences.

What is your concept for/vision of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính’s set design? Is there a theme in each of your design or in this case, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính set?

Overall, we both felt that since the piece was written in a modern musical language informed by Vietnamese culture, the design too needed to follow that lead. In short, contemporary music suggests a contemporary design. Vince had a lot of research in the form of personal photos he took on a trip to northern Vietnam. He shared these with me along with several selected readings from various sources. I also did a lot of specific research of Vietnamese artists including paintings of goddesses and landscapes and domestic settings. Additionally we looked a many photos of the landscape and the architecture of the region gathered from all sorts of resources.

What I found that really resonated for both of us was a modern Vietnamese architectural structure called I-Resort. This building just outside of Nha Trang was actually designed as a high-class mud bath. It is a modern architectural structure which is based on typical Vietnamese styles including thatch or palm leaf roofing, wood and bamboo, stone and coconut leaves along with many lotus ponds and Buddha statues. The whole design is built around a circle which we incorporated in the upstage platforms. The feeling of the space and the earth-tones colors all strongly guided the shape and feeling of my designs for Lady Thi Kinh.

It was very important to us that we avoided looking like an Anthropology museum, and I think we have! We wanted to tell a story in a meaningful way for a modern American audience and we wanted to find a way to condense the many scenes of the piece into one simple evolving structure so as to avoid interruption and visual complexity that might burden the progression of the piece.

I felt it was important to evolve visually along with the emotional, dramatic and musical progression of the piece. Each scene is carefully organized to tell us just enough about what we need to know, but more importantly it is designed to tell us something about the internal story and it’s progression as well. For example, the opening scenes gradually build and open up more and more until we finally open as wide as possible to the wedding where we see a large expanse, a Vietnamese landscape painting intended to suggest springtime. The ability to expand and contract the space is achieved through movable panels, all of which will be configured and re-configured throughout as needed.

The finale scene is designed to be the highpoint of the piece visually. We have tried to build to that moment so that the audience can experience a visual moment that is bigger and more colorful than anything they have seen up until that point.

What is the dynamics between authenticity and artistic freedom in this case? How are they played out in this design of yours? 

What I hope is that I have allowed myself just enough artistic freedom to express an emotionally powerful and universally understood message, while informing my work with enough knowledge of what real Vietnamese culture really is to make it stand up to any audience. I am not trying to be totally “authentic” or at all “realistic” since what we are presenting is not a documentary on the subject. Rather, it is our goal to convey an artistic experience to an audience that is both compelling and moving.

What is your working relationship with the stage director, the costume and light designers, and the set building team at IU Opera? 

Designing for the theatre is a collaborative art. I prefer to call myself a “theatre-maker”, a title in common use today. We are all “theatre-makers” even though we all have different titles. So my relationship with my collaborators is based on that notion. I think we all respect each other and all feel free to comment on each other’s work and inspire each other as we work together to make one unified production. Included in this process is the shop and all of the artisans whose job is to realize the design ideas in the physical world. Every step of the way there are many people contributing to the whole. In the end the collective energy that goes into these productions is staggering. No one person can walk away with all of the credit and that is what makes it so great.

Are there more special materials you need to use for this set and why is there such a need?

I am using a lot of actual bamboo which is something I have not done before. I am looking forward to seeing how well it works onstage. Obviously this is a material that will strongly indicate the architectural style of the region.

Are you concerned with the building of the set in any way?

IU has a great shop and I am very confident they will realize the design on a high level. That said, part of the designer’s job is to concern him or herself with ensuring that the design ideas are communicated clearly and that what is on paper is actually what will appear onstage when it is ready for an audience.

What do you expect the audience to ‘see’ in your design? What do you want to achieve with The Tale of Lady Thị Kính set?

In every case I try to design what I think is the most meaningful landscape for a piece, based on the discussions I have had with directors and the concepts we are trying to convey. I never try to second-guess what the audience’s response will be, nor do I really care to try to control that, because I think that is impossible to do. I hope that what they come away with will be the result of all of the elements coming together to generate a powerful emotionally and intellectually meaningful experience.

What are the challenges in designing for a cross-cultural project like The Tale of Lady Thị Kính? How is it different than, say, Don Giovanni and Nixon in China?

To be honest, every project involves researching cultures and social contexts which may or may not be all that familiar to us. For me the process is really pretty much the same. The only real difference is the fact that less familiar references take more time to research. I do think this project is a lot more complicated for me in that sense. That said, it is an invaluable resource to have as a guide a composer who is Vietnamese and a director who has done a lot of research and travel to the region in order to gain real knowledge and understanding of the material. All of that guided my research and contributed to it in very meaningful ways which did save me a lot of time.

Is there anything surprising popping up during your research for this production?

We talked a lot about how to make an American audience see the piece as “Vietnamese”. I was surprised to learn that there is actually some validity to the notion that “yellow” dominates Vietnamese design in the same way that “red” dominates Chinese design. I would have thought that was just a limited American view of things, but it turns out that this idea is very important to the composer and the director. I think it is great because it really controls the feeling of the designs.

Do you think it would have made a difference in your design if you had looked at the scores? Which is a more preferred scenario to you: designing with the scores or without?

Most of the time one designs operas with the score in mind, because frankly, most opera companies produce very little new work and so there are usually several recordings out there that one can buy and listen to. When designing a new piece that luxury is not always available. There have been times when I have had to design with very little concept of the score because the score was incomplete. Additionally, there is not always an audio representation of any kind to listen to. I am not comfortable with that at all.

The great thing about this project is that there is an audio version with voice and piano, though not including the orchestration. That is enough to get the sense of the momentum and the structure of the piece musically. As long as I can tell where the highpoints are and how the piece builds emotionally through sound, I feel secure about designing it. Designing opera without the music in mind is like designing a play without the script. For me, it really makes no sense to do that. When I have designed new pieces without the score I have not been happy with the results.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.

–> Back to The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

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Photo courtesy of Erhard Rom.

Erhard Rom is an American scenic designer who has designed settings for nearly 200 productions across North America in a wide variety of venues. Twenty-four of the works he has designed have been operas composed after 1950. Of these, 19 were written by American composers and nine were world premieres. Several of his designs have been featured in the Prague Quadrennial International Scenographic and Architectural exhibition. Originally from Seattle, WA, he now lives with his family just outside of New York City in Maplewood, NJ, and teaches design at Montclair State University in the department of theatre and dance.

From a very early age he showed strong interests in both theatrical design and in music, which ultimately lead him to pursue first a degree in music at the University of Washington and then an M.F.A. in design at New York University. Following his graduation in 1992 he began working regularly for regional companies throughout the country. While the bulk of his work has been for opera, he has designed extensively for theater companies as well, and brings a theatrical sensibility to his operatic work that is combined with a deep understanding of the music.

His work has been seen at San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Vancouver Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Minnesota Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Opera Colorado, Opéra de Montréal, The Atlanta Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Boston and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, among many others. His many credits include productions of Nixon in China (San Francisco Opera); Jane EyreThe Rape of LucretiaCarmen, Faust and La bohème (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis); Sweeney ToddDon Pasquale,AlcinaA Midsummer Night’s DreamCosì fan tutteAriadne auf NaxosDon Giovanni andThe Rake’s Progress (Wolf Trap Opera); Romeo and JulietThe Merry Widow and Rusalka(Minnesota Opera); Don GiovanniSusannahThe Tales of Hoffmann and Aida (Virginia Opera). His theatrical work has been seen in places such as Syracuse Stage, Geva Theatre Center, Indiana Repertory Theatre, Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Merrimack Repertory Theatre and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. His work in these venues includes productions of Romeo and JulietA Midsummer Night’s DreamGhostsThe Triumph of LoveThe WeirInherit the WindDeath of a Salesman12 Angry MenBrighton Beach Memoir, The Whipping Man and The Illusion.

He has collaborated with many of the worlds leading directors of opera, including Francesca Zambello, Nicholas Muni, Michael Cavanagh, Colin Graham, Leon Major, Lillian Groag, Rhoda Levine, James Robinson, Tomer Zvulun and Thaddeus Strassberger. His list of world premieres includes John Musto and Mark Campbell’s Volpone and The Inspector, both for Wolf Trap Opera, as well as Later the Same Evening for Maryland Opera Studio and the Manhattan School of Music. Other premieres include the 2011 Glimmerglass Festival production of A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck with music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and the 2003 premiere of Pontalba by Thea Musgrave for New Orleans Opera.

Erhard Rom’s design work was displayed in the Opera America Design Gallery, located in the Pamela J. Hoiles lobby from October 2012 through February 2013. This exhibition of his work was part of the opening of the new National Opera Center in Manhattan.

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