A key component of any opera production is the setting of the story – establishing time and place. This is indicated in the libretto and even the music but it’s also the set that adds to the understanding, impact, emotion, some of the “eye-candy” and excitement of the opera. It’s a tangible connection that complements and enhances the performances of the orchestra and singers.
Hundreds if not thousands of details go into the design, creation, execution and utilization of the set. And while there are fundamental aspects to every set, there is a certain amount of nearly imperceptible nuance that is created by a set that adds to the flavor and experience of these musical masterpieces. Some may call that magic.
For Everest and La Wally the man behind that magic may just have the perfect combination of experience, passion, skills and creativity to pull off The Dallas Opera’s “Heights of Passion” Season world premiere.
Building his Education
Set Designer Robert Brill’s affinity for building started young. Fortuitously, his high school, in central California had a strong vocational program in drafting so even in his teens he managed to get four years of training accomplished. Add to that a great curiosity about magic—he was strongly drawn to the performances of icons David Copperfield and Doug Henning for which he trained himself, (he even drove seven hours to see Henning perform and meet him) a future in set design was imminent, although he didn’t know it at the time. And while intricate planning is involved in set design, and Mr. Brill was in California dreaming about his career, his career development was not planned. The man now known for crafting the sets of the hit Moby-Dick, Faust for the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, Assassins, Guy and Dolls for Broadway and many others, didn’t intentionally build his career.
The next steps for Mr. Brill’s career included getting involved in theater, also while he was still in high school. As an aspiring magician, a friend suggested he do some acting to get performance experience. He got involved with the theater department at Hartnell College, which he also attended later, and the Western Stage Theater Company. Ultimately he gravitated and was pulled toward the behind-the-scenes work of set construction. Living in the small city of Salinas, California, his skills and passion quickly appointed him as the “go-to” guy to help create the settings. Because he had drafting skills he was asked to assist the resident set designer, paint and help build sets at the College. That opportunity was for him the “most amazing thing” in which to be involved and also offered him the ability to build props for his magic work. Mr. Brill also spent time as an apprentice at an architectural firm.
Soon afterwards, he was introduced to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, a large theater group. He got a job as Assistant to the Set Designer which allowed him to put skills he learned into practice. There, he was also able to work closely with Richard L. Hay (principal designer at Ashland for decades) from whom he learned much, labeling him a mentor. Mr. Hay and a friend at the Shakespeare Festival encouraged Mr. Brill to further his education in an undergraduate program. He took their advice and went to the University of California San Diego—and although not knowing much about the University or its program—became a theater major.
In another lucky development, one of the most prominent theater/opera designers, Robert Israel, was teaching there at the time, offering Mr. Brill wonderful access to this master. Between Israel and Hay, two very different personalities, it became “an interesting collision” for Mr. Brill. At the end of his first year at UCSD, he collaborated with a few other students to form an alternative theater company called “Sledgehammer Theater” that continued to produce for many years. With that company they created site specific work; theater spaces created from abandoned warehouses or retail buildings or spaces unique to a site. Their first venue was at an outdoor canyon space at the University.
Building His Career
Mr. Brill credits his work at Sledgehammer Theater, which he describes as hand-to-mouth, often funded by their personal credit cards, with helping to prepare him for important opportunities. He also feels at the time it was the closest he’s ever been to “being an artist in the more formal sense of the word.” For him the most important thing was to get it done, get it realized, whether he was building it himself or paying for it himself. It was very hands-on.
Mr. Brill continued that work and ultimately lived in San Diego for ten years. He also worked with the Old Globe Theater and the La Jolla Playhouse on UCSD campus. Mr. Brill was fortunate again to work with another brilliant talent, Des McAnuff, who was Artistic Director at La Jolla Playhouse for many years, winning many awards. Mr. Brill feels he was always “lucky to work with people who are smarter than me.” It was another important period in his career development. He later designed the set for the opera Wozzeck for San Diego Opera, directed by Mr. McAnuff, who was making his opera debut.
Mr. Brill left San Diego when, after working together on a project, his then-wife brought him to the East Coast. He lived and worked in New York for fifteen years, adding significant work on and off Broadway to his resume.
In fact, while in N.Y. he landed a gig designing Cabaret in 1998 which ran on Broadway for five years. Mr. Brill says he was the last person interviewed for the project and many great designers much more senior than him had already been interviewed. Even with his successes at La Jolla and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater he wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. But it was the site specific work he did for Sledgehammer that captured the producer’s attention. The vision of doing Cabaret was to do it site specific and transform theaters to enhance the story that involved the audience being immersed in a night club. The first production was done at a former theater that had become derelict. “Rough around the edges— taking found space and creating an event, primarily got me the job. I love having support and resources…but I still love getting my hands dirty, and being a part of the process,” he adds.
When Mr. Brill was first approached by Stage Director Leonard Foglia, with whom he worked on Moby Dick, about creating Everest, he wasn’t too intimidated by it. “It was initially overwhelming but there was also something mildly humorous about the prospect. Our first collaboration was on Moby Dick—next was Cold Mountain set during the Civil War, so it seemed appropriate that the next project be as outrageous--Everest combined with La Wally. I felt like—bring it on! What’s next? Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes? Despite the challenge, we knew we had to create something unexpected and not literal. …Lenny was interested in a design that would be as muscular and as terrifying as Everest itself—a really physical space. But the most important thing to him was that it be a state of mind—that came up a lot in conversation. Every time we would explore an idea we kept reminding ourselves it had to reflect a state of mind,” he says.
“Lenny also wanted to incorporate imagery into the set in some way, but we didn’t know what form that would take. Our initial discussions were about physical space—what creates the tension between the characters and the landscape—what allows us to use the space dramatically and to be in a state of mind. We kept going back to that. The projections allow us to take both the audience and characters onto this journey up Everest. Elaine McCarthy (Projections Designer) was part of our early discussions. Some of our initial concepts look nothing at all like what’s onstage. Gene Scheer (the librettist) was very excited with our approach,” he describes.
Mr. Brill believes the set also echoes the libretto. During one meeting, Mr. Scheer was quoting from the libretto which talks about ‘dreams and a million contingencies, each unique and each the same’. Mr. Brill feels his set is a sculptural world that is very complicated and simple at the same time and has these extremes. Each component of the set is unique but the same and part of the larger whole. “Emotionally it should be as overwhelming and daunting as Everest itself,” he says.
Mr. Brill is also highly aware that all the efforts of the team, the lighting designer, the costume designer, even the singers, become part of the architecture of the mountain as well. “The collaboration…takes us on a journey that can be the mind space I was talking about,” he adds.
The Building Process
Mr. Brill started talking with Mr. Foglia in the spring of 2014 about his vision. “It was a difficult idea to communicate--there was no real way to draw it, so I began by sculpting it” he says. He started, of course, with a model.
“I spent a lot of time sculpting the set in model form. It was hundreds of small blocks of wood that were painted white. In that way it was very simple. Once we agreed on the form, we kept massaging it to tell the story…We were confident that the visual approach was going to support the tone of the opera, but now it’s about really digging through the libretto moment by moment, asking ‘is this a good way to stage the scene? This moment—between two people separated by this much distance’. We just kept chipping away at it. And after meeting with the team in New York and continuing to hone the 3D model, we took the next step of constructing the design virtually in the computer. That step was crucial to study and communicate the design to others. It was about turning a sculpture into something practical--something that can be realized within a budget and a timeframe,” Mr. Brill describes.
The next phase of it, the engineering and construction phase, involved working with The Dallas Opera’s Technical Director Drew Field and Greg Blackburn, of Dallas Stage Scenery, both of whom Mr. Brill says were “amazing collaborators.”
“Greg came on board and was able to realize the design within a limited timeframe and budget. It was a lot to assess in a short amount of time—it’s a very deceptive design, and he managed to build it all in 6 weeks! And that wasn’t just Everest, but working with Drew to engineer it to partner with La Wally. I’m also the designer for La Wally, and that piece has to change-over during the intermission. One has to disappear and the other appear. That’s a kind of a magic trick in itself. They both have their own sense of volume mass and spectacle. It’s very unexpected. Drew and Greg have definitely been working their magic,” he adds.
The next step was about performer safety and allowing them to find their sea legs. He knew they would need to feel comfortable and secure so they could do their job.
Mr. Brill says he has never designed something like this before. “It’s exciting—it’s really refreshing to me— it makes me feel inspired. I’m excited to be working in a completely different form. Because I have an architectural background a lot of my work starts with creating space, but a lot of times it’s about architectural space, and this is really very much about creating a really dynamic sculpture that can serve as a canvass, a landscape for the story. And working in a truly sculptural way…something we’re doing for Cold Mountain. Similar to Everest it’s one idea that has exploded in a way. It’s really liberating. I’m having a great time working on it,” he says.
Mr. Brill said even the carpenters were enthusiastic about the set. They had never worked on something like this before.
“What we’re all doing is taking an audience on a journey and being transported to somewhere else, both the illusion we create and the experience of it are part of a great magic trick. There are a number of projects I’m involved in right now using very specific forms of illusions to create effects on stage. Kind of satisfying to see it come full circle,” Mr. Brill adds.
His latest project is in Las Vegas to create a space for Mat Franco the “America’s Got Talent” winner for 2014. Mr. Franco is a magician.
And at least one opera critic recognized that with composer Joby Talbot’s music, the mountain was brought “alive and into the opera as an active character.” Now that’s magic!