With the holidays over, Santa Claus might want to check out Edmonton Opera’s production facility, as the north-end building could be serious competition for St. Nick’s toy workshop.
Since September, nearly every inch of the production facility has been used to build The Magic Flute — carpenters, welders and painters working on the scenery in the shop, while the wardrobe crew builds costumes at the opposite end of the building.
“We have about 15,000 square feet of floor space dedicated to the scenic shop, and sadly, that is about a quarter of what we seem to need,” said Clayton Rodney, Edmonton Opera’s technical and production director.
“So constantly, what happens is pieces go out on the floor, they get cut, assembled, then they have to wait for the next step so they get disassembled, stored against a wall, then brought back for other phases. So it’s a constant ballet of things moving around.”
Rodney plays a middleman role — once scenery designer Bretta Gerecke supplied him with drawings of the scenery pieces to scale, he was able to create technical drawings in AutoCAD that the carpenters referenced to build each piece.
This design is the product of an award-winning Canadian team — Gerecke worked with director Robert Herriot and costume designer Deanna Finnman to create what they describe as an exotic pop-up storybook world, where everything pops up, drops down or slides in to create a world where the audience doesn’t know what is coming next.
Adding metal to the mix
Once the shop had the technical drawings, work began on two pieces used at the top of the show — metal frames that form six panels upstage, midstage and downstage, and a forest cut out of wood.
The panels open and close throughout the performance, each time reshaping the stage and revealing something new. It’s like turning a page in a pop-up book, Gerecke said.
Welding the aluminum frames was a new skill set for the opera’s welders; the metal was not only a stylistic choice, but a practical one too.
“For aluminum, you think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s aluminum, that will weigh nothing.’ No, they’re a few hundred pounds per panel. Our biggest panels, fully assembled, I’m guessing are around 700 pounds. So not as heavy as steel by any means,” said Rodney, adding that there is also consideration to the weight of the fabric on the panels, the paint and the hardware required to slide the panels.
As both the scenery designer and the lighting designer, Gerecke laughed when she said it poses a unique challenge because she can become angry with herself for putting a scenery piece in the way of a lighting cue.
“The set was designed to be lit,” she said. “Translucent panels, and the panels themselves open and close to reveal various locations, so the joy of this set for me is going to be getting to light it.”
In addition to the frames, three arches were welded for the temple scenes. The triangular structures are wrapped with green poly strapping — the same material used to hold pallets together — creating a twisted vine look.
Welding the various shapes took about 14 weeks, so while the welders sometimes took up the entire shop floor, more often than not they shared the space with another part of the process.
“Two-dimensional storybook thinking”
To start, plywood boards were laid out on the floor, and, with the help of a grid, the head of properties traced the outline of the forest to cut.
“There’s a forest depiction, I think it was in [Rudyard Kipling’s] Just So Stories, and it’s absolutely beautiful — similar, but a bit more romantic and curvilinear,” Gerecke said. “We had a great moment of inspiration of, ‘Well, what if we make that a bit more angular and a bit more powerful?’”
Once the majority of the frames were out of the way, work continued quickly on the rest of the wooden set pieces. The palm trees and rocky staircase are theatre-style flats, while the sun is a TV-style flat —more prominently three-dimensional.
“There are six palm trees — a pair downstage, a pair midstage and a pair upstage,” Rodney said. “Basically, everything in this show creates a forced perspective moving upstage, so the legs taper in, the borders drop slightly. We start with this wide box and it gets smaller as you go on. It’s very much two-dimensional storybook thinking.”
Mid-winter colour therapy
And, he joked, the points on the sun are so sharp that when the Queen of the Night is blinded by the light at the end of the performance, the sun’s rays might skewer her.
“The colour on [the sun] is great,” Rodney said. “I love the colour, it’s so bright, and I’ve seen the costumes that go with it as well, and you might want to bring your sunglasses for that moment.”
The colour palette is reminiscent of warm spice tones, and the way that they blend on the angular scenery pieces was a conscious design decision to create contrast, Gerecke said.
“The colours are fairly bold for this production,” she said. “It will definitely brighten the spirit of everyone who sees it, because it will be February in Edmonton, and who doesn’t want a little colour therapy in February in Edmonton?”
At the end of November, the scenery pieces were moved to the side so that the stage deck assembly could begin (the contraption for the Queen of the Night was the last piece built, in late December and early January). In this production, installing a stage deck on top of the Jubilee stage allows for the use of a trap door, knife tracks that keep scenery pieces on a specific course, concealing pyrotechnics and of course, it’s much easier to paint a travelling stage instead of the Jubilee floor itself.
From start to finish, the entire process is layered, as the costume build started in the middle of the set build, in mid-November. The wardrobe crew will be busy right up until opening night, as every clothing article, including headwear, is made from scratch, instead of modifying existing pieces.
All told, by closing night, more than 50 people — shop, wardrobe and running crews, as well as administration staff — will have had some hand in bringing Mozart’s last opera to life (and that doesn’t even begin to include the 16 principals, 32 chorus members and 50 Edmonton Symphony Orchestra musicians).
In an opera where the word magic is right in the title, Gerecke was the first to admit it during a shop tour in late November: “It’s the magic that’s complicated.”
Edmonton Opera's "The Magic Flute" opens with a sold-out performance Jan. 31, 2015 (8 p.m.) at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, and continues with additional performances on Feb. 3, 2015 (7:30 p.m.) and Feb. 5, 2015 (7:30 p.m.). Tickets are available online or by calling 780-429-1000.