San Francisco Opera | Backstage with Matthew

Backstage with Matthew: Lifting the veil on a new production

I was so proud to unveil the 2020-21 Season of San Francisco Opera on Wednesday, a season that blends thrilling new productions with exquisite presentations of some of the great core classics. It is a season heavily rooted in stories that reflect our community, and one of the exciting manifestations of that will be a brand-new production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, in the opening weekend of the season. Just before the holidays, we had the design presentation for Fidelio. I thought it might be interesting to share with you what happens in these presentations and the role they play in the creative process.

The Fidelio creative team

The Fidelio creative team (from left to right: director Matthew Ozawa, costume designer Jessica Jahn, lighting designer JAX Messenger, and set designer Alex Nichols) presenting their production concept to company members.

Design presentations are a key part of creating a brand-new production. They are the moment when final designs are presented to a company, in advance of the production being built. The specifics of the design presentation process vary from company to company in terms of timing, content, audience, format, etc., but we typically like to do our design presentations about a year out from the production, and several months before the production goes into the scenic and costume shops. We also like design presentations to be the culmination of months and months of conversations, ideas, prototypes and technical working between the company and the creative team (the director and the designers) such that the design presentation itself is a chance to fine-tune the approach, rather than to present it for the first time.

The initial design sketch for the “front office” of the prison

The initial design sketch for the “front office” of the prison, presented well before the design presentation.

There are several reasons for this multi-step creative process. First, it allows for a more symbiotic relationship between the Company and the creative team. We explore questions and problems in real-time together, so that things can be addressed well in advance. We can experiment with different materials for constructing the scenery, work through varied approaches to technical/mechanical/automation needs within the set, address budget feasibility and find viable solutions, and so on. It is infinitely better to do this well ahead of the design presentation, rather than seeing a beautifully created model for the first time and then coming up with a litany of changes! This is an approach that has been championed and refined by our Managing Director: Production Jennifer Good, and it allows for a very creative, inclusive and respectful design process, one that truly integrates the designers and the production department into one cohesive whole.

A computer rendering of the final set for Act I

A computer rendering of the final set for Act I and the “front office”.

This approach also enables us to open up the design presentation to a much broader group of people. Our two-hour presentation and question/answer session in December was with an audience of about 60 people, including members from the Opera’s technical and costume teams; our artistic, music and production staffs; our public-facing staff; and members of our Producers Circle — our group of donors who are giving at the highest levels and playing a huge role in producing exciting works like this Fidelio.

Production Stage Manager Darin Burnett and Managing Director: Production Jennifer Good, and Director Matthew Ozawa

Production Stage Manager Darin Burnett and Managing Director: Production Jennifer Good discuss the presentation with director Matthew Ozawa.

Master of Properties Lori Harrison and General Director Matthew Shilvock

Here I am with Master of Properties Lori Harrison carefully examining the incredibly detailed set model.

The design presentation itself is just the tip of the iceberg. The director, Matthew Ozawa, and the designers Alex Nichols, Jessica Jahn and JAX Messenger, stayed in town two days, and they filled every minute of the remaining time with meetings — meetings with the technical and production teams, the props department, the costume shop, and the marketing and communications teams.

The set will go into our scenic and costume shops in just a few months (look for more Backstage with Matthew content on this production!), and the December meetings were invaluable in sharing as much information as possible, solving problems as early as possible, and allowing the build process to be as seamless as possible.

Typically, a design presentation begins with a brief introduction and welcome from the general director — words to set the context for the production and affirm its importance to the Company and the community. I talked about the importance of the work to the canon, particularly in Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, and how proud I am of the artists who will be taking this on — from our new Music Director Eun Sun Kim, to the return of Elza van den Heever, former Adler Fellow of San Francisco Opera who has been starring in lead roles around the world since we last saw her on our stage a decade ago.

Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim and soprano Elza van den Heever.

Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim and soprano Elza van den Heever.

I then introduce the creative team, and they take over the remainder of the presentation. The director usually begins by giving us background on the context of the setting and how it ties to the dramatic narrative onstage.

For Matthew Ozawa, the courage of one woman, Leonore, who rescues her husband from tyranny and death in a political prison, is at the heart of Fidelio. In experiencing one woman’s courageous journey, Matthew fundamentally wants each of us to feel that deep-rooted human capacity to effect change; he wants this production to be a conversation starter around what change looks like around the world. He reminded us that Fidelio has been used throughout the last 200 years as a rallying cry in moments where society wants to reaffirm, celebrate, or shine a spotlight on the power of the human spirit to overcome oppression. As Matthew says “humanity has the power to defeat tyranny by shining a light on injustice.” He plans to explore this theme while staying true to the original spirit of the piece; avoiding a heavy-handed approach, he will use nuance, analogy, and cultural references that allow the story to speak to the greatest audience possible and have lasting power for the future.

Matthew Ozawa

Matthew Ozawa exploring the universality of Fidelio during the design presentation.

It’s not uncommon in a design presentation for the creative team to talk about their inspiration and how they came to develop the aesthetic and technical ideas that underscore their concept. Matthew Ozawa talked about some of the fundamental ‘truths’ of Beethoven’s Fidelio or, as he put it, the traditions of Fidelio. These are the absolutes that he sees in the opera that helped guide the creative approach:

  1. The opera was originally set in a state prison.
  2. The original setting of the late 18th century was very close in time to the 1805 premiere in Vienna. Beethoven would have expected the work to have contemporary resonance with audiences.
  3. Florestan is wrongfully and secretly imprisoned for exposing certain crimes of the governor, Don Pizarro.
  4. We know that specific characters — Rocco, Marzelline and Jacquino work within the prison.

A design rendering for an 1815 production of Fidelio

A design rendering for an 1815 production of Fidelio.

From there, Matthew Ozawa talked about how we integrate these fundamental facts with our own narratives, our own times, our own stories. He shared his own story about his father’s birth in a Japanese internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming during World War II, and how profoundly Fidelio resonates for so many groups of people who are affected by detention. He talked about the importance of this production taking place in an undisclosed location — this is not the US, this is much more generalized, allowing it to reflect any of the 2,000 known political detention facilities in the world.

The Heart Mountain Japanese Internment Camp, or Relocation Center.

The Heart Mountain Japanese Internment Camp, or Relocation Center.

One of the things I’ve found interesting about this interpretation of Fidelio is its approach to the system around the prison — the political, bureaucratic infrastructure that oversees and manages the prison. There is a striking dichotomy between the incredibly sterile “front office” of the prison, the polished concrete floors, the warehouse like feel, and the reality of what happens in these facilities. And then the political structure that enables such facilities to exist and how politicians (in this case Pizarro and Fernando) engage with the facility. Finally, the role of the media, and their relationship to the facility. This production will end with the release and reunification of the prisoners, a media crew capturing it all, and a politician who is eager to make positive front-page news.

The final scene of Fidelio

The final scene of Fidelio in which the prisoners are released and a media crew picks up the reunification live on screen.

The design presentation gives an incredibly rich overview of the motivations, the aspirations, the conversations that led to this final design. Knowing that depth can be invaluable to the artists, artisans and technicians charged with building the set and costumes and ensures that there is a common beating heart to the production. This allows us to translate the designs into a cohesive production that resonates with the audience.

After the overview and concept are shared in the design presentation, we next move into the specific design elements. Each designer takes the floor to share specifics around materials, construction techniques, and their motivations and intent.

Alex Nichols (whose work you may have seen at the San Francisco Ballet in productions like RAkU and Swimmer) led us through the scenic design and the incredible cube that he has conceived for Fidelio — a structure that allows us into many areas of the detention facility, moving seamlessly from scene to scene. He talked about elements of projection, props, technical specifications (motors, materials, technical effects, etc.) and the live camera work at the end. Along with Matthew, he led us through each scene so that we could visualize the flow of the opera.

The exquisite scale model made by Alex for Fidelio

The exquisite scale model made by Alex for Fidelio, created in large part on a 3D printer, and showing here two scenes – the front office and the prison cells.

Costume designer Jessica Jahn then talked through the costumes and the motivations for her designs. She outlined the need to establish two separate spaces – the sleek, hard-edged world of the “front office” and political super-structure will be expressed through bureaucratic, almost severe clothing designs, while the world of the prisoners will bring much more color and life to the stage with softness, authenticity, and an interplay of light and color. She discussed the division of people within detention centers, categorized by race, gender, religion, and how that is often manifest in clothes — jump suits for certain prisoners (here in yellow to avoid the very iconic American orange) and utilitarian plain-colored t-shirts for the children, clearly pulled out of a wholesale box. These stratifications of the prison world are so important to the story, particularly in Matthew’s production.

Jessica Jahn’s costume designs

Examples of Jessica Jahn’s costume designs for Fidelio, shown at the design presentation: from left to right is Leonore disguised as a guard, Florestan who has been imprisoned for years and Jaquino who works in the front office.

Lighting designer JAX Messenger spoke about the use of light to create not only the setting, but also the atmosphere and the set of feelings that they hope the audience will experience. The intersection of bleak, austere prison lighting (accomplished with LEDs designed to look like fluorescents), with warmer, more emotive lighting when we have moments of beauty and hope on stage. The lighting specifics often come a little later in the process, but it’s vital to have the approaches to lighting now, before we start selecting materials for the set, making adjustments to sightlines, etc.

Lighting effects

The use of lighting will be very important to create the right emotional energy as the production moves from scene to scene.

The design presentation then concludes with a series of questions from the audience, moderated by our Managing Director: Production Jennifer Good. As I mentioned, many questions come in the separate departmental meetings that happen around the design presentation, but these presentations are also excellent forums to share feedback in a larger group setting. I thought you might be interested to know the broad array of question topics that came up in this design presentation:

  • Reflective surfaces for the singers.
  • How we create the video segments of Leonore given costume fitting needs.
  • Who’s who in terms of prisoners, guards, office workers etc. (whether choristers or supers).
  • How the audience will be feeling and what kind of audience are we hoping to attract.
  • Parallels between specific political situations and inspirations for the costumes.
  • Issues of diversity within our prison population.
  • Specifics around props, including the historical period for the weaponry.

This is just a small sample of topics, but you get a sense of the multi-faceted conversation that happens as a work moves from initial concept to a set of blueprints that will be used by the scene shop to create the opera.

This design presentation of Fidelio was such an uplifting moment. To have just finished an excellent fall season and to be envisioning a thrilling new production for 2020 was a wonderful moment of excitement and anticipation. When the concepts and ideas are this strong, when the creative team is this collaborative, the whole creation elevates to a new level of possibility and the design presentation becomes a rallying cry for what lies ahead.

The set design for Florestan’s cell

The set design for Florestan’s cell, where he holds onto memories of his wife Leonore.

I cannot wait to share the development of this production with you in future editions of Backstage with Matthew, and to lift the veil in September on this powerfully relevant telling of Leonore’s triumph over tyranny. Here’s to a great season ahead!

Backstage with Matthew: Essential Preparation