Set and Costume Designer Gary McCann and Projections Designer Driscoll Otto answered Playbill’s questions about the process that resulted in their striking visuals.
What guidance did you receive from director Paul Curran about the design of this new production? And what specific ideas did you bring to the table for discussion?
D.O.: Paul and I spoke at length about the design about a year out from the original Santa Fe production. The discussion was about how we could create the worlds of The Golden Cockerel with the use of imagery and also about the possibility of having the Cockerel be an animated character with a singer off stage singing the role. The challenges of the animated Cockerel were huge, but I agreed with Paul that we would have stronger story telling with an animated character vs. a person in a cockerel costume. The designing of the actual Cockerel character was one of my favorite moments in our process.
G.M.: Paul Curran and I have been working together for quite a few years now – so the question of being able to divide up responsibility for ideas is somewhat unnecessary. That is to say, we have a shorthand in terms of our communication, as well as a real understanding of how the other person works creatively. Together, we shaped how the production looks and is staged.
Had either of you designed a Russian opera before? What possibilities did that open up, in terms of color, style, and motifs?
G.M.: This is my first Russian opera design – although I’m currently preparing designs for Eugene Onegin which is a completely different affair altogether. Cockerel is a savage political critique wrapped up in the sheep’s clothing of a folk tale set in imaginary olden times. In terms of costume, I looked at traditional Russian dress from the 18th and 19th Centuries, and wildly exaggerated the scale of the patterns and color palettes to give the design both a fantastical quality and a satirical edge.
D.O.: Golden Cockerel was my first Russian Opera, as well…though I quickly followed that up with a production of Iolanta with Paul (Curran). The themes and motifs in that era of Russian history are rich with color and texture. Projection-wise, we found ourselves in a hybrid of an animated Russian world paired with a modern sharp and also a “carnivalesque” world.
What were some of the other influences on your designs?
D.O.: Russian Artist Tatiana Plakhova was a huge inspiration as her style resembles fractal art, but, amazingly enough, hers is a hundred percent handmade creation. The world of the Astronomer is built from her art.
G.M.: The sets are designed to sit in direct contrast with the costume designs. I often like to do this as it creates an interesting frisson in what the audience sees and therefore how they understand the narrative. The set is inspired by 20th Century constructivist art and architecture (think – Tatlin’s tower). It is made from perforated metal and one can see the twisting truss which supports the transparent metal surfaces. It is thus almost like an illusion – partly there, partly not, and able to transform Holodeck-style into any kind of space we want through the use of projection and the changing of light.
The composer of The Golden Cockerel didn’t live to see his final opera performed, so we don’t know what Rimsky-Korsakov sought, in terms of a design. However, I’m sure his music must have inspired each of you. Explain how the music helped shape your designs.
D.O.: The music is always where I begin. The music in Cockerel is so rich and beautiful it begged for texture, color and movement to support its sound. Between Gary’s sets and costumes, Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting, and my video, I think we found a gorgeous realm for this piece to exist in.
G.M.: Also, the music has a fluidity and sensuousness, which is reflected in the curvature of the abstract scenic elements.
The composer is most famous for his Scheherazade, and I couldn’t help thinking of his take on the Arabian Nights when I saw the exotic costumes for the Queen of Shemakha. Coincidence?
G.M.: I don’t think this is such a coincidence. Shemakha is a mythical Eastern Kingdom, which is controlled by a beautiful and clever Queen. The Queen and her retinue have their own identifiable aesthetic which is complimentary yet very different to the humorously exaggerated world of King Dodon. She wears a multi-layered Kingfisher green gown, which she slowly peels away over the course of her first aria.
The Golden Cockerel was a stinging indictment of the Russo-Japanese War and Tsarist foreign policy at the turn of the 20th century. How did your design choices underscore the anti-war sentiment of the piece?
G.M.: The design choices hopefully help illustrate the anti-war sentiments quite clearly. King Dodon is shown as an absurd man-baby in a one piece red Union suit, who is utterly incompetent as a ruler. This is further amplified by his enormous throne—which he is simply incapable of filling, and has to scramble up onto the seat in a ridiculous manner. His court filled with pompous advisors who offer little more in the way of brain cells than the king possesses himself. Like him, they have bizarrely colored beards coupled with enormous hats, and outlandishly patterned robes.
D.O.: The Parade section of the opera is a moment of pure reaction from the cast as we present the people being brought back to Dodon’s kingdom in a film that we created. The idea of war/spoils of war/ and fear of the unknown are our main themes as the parade progresses. By the end of the parade we see soldiers metaphorically stomping on the people who are watching and reacting.
Tell us more about the decision to make the Golden Cockerel itself a projection rather than a physical presence on the set.
G.M.: Making the cockerel a projection allows her to be much more fluid and magical as a character – she can expand and contract and do all sorts of interesting things in her animations. We felt this was a more exciting way to depict her, than having a performer in a bird suit on stage.
How did the three of you collaborate on lighting, projections, and set design to create the world of Pushkin’s imagination? What was the biggest single challenge in that partnership?
G.M.: Collaborating from my end was very organic and we all had the same end point in mind and worked towards that. The major challenge we experienced was the creation of such a technically ambitious show as part of the repertoire system at Santa Fe opera, with limited time on stage and more often than not rehearsing on stage during daylight hours, which made viewing lighting and projected imagery impossible.
D.O.: Throughout the process we shared storyboards of the production. This gave Paul Curran, Paul Hackenmueller, Gary and I the ability to react to each other as we imagined the piece. There are always changes once we move into the theater, but with all of prior collaboration it was easy to adapt.
What did you experience in designing this production that has carried over into subsequent projects?
G.M.: This is the first time that I’ve had so many fabrics printed from scratch. I was lucky in that I found the most wonderful book of patterns – Russian Textiles by Susan Meller. I wrote to Susan and she very kindly granted me access to all her fabulous high-resolution photos she took of original 19th century fabrics. We there then able to use these in digital prints, which lend the costumes an incredible vibrancy and an authenticity within the exaggerated aesthetic. I’ll certainly look to print fabrics in the future when I can.
Your work was extremely well received by both critics and audiences when The Golden Cockerel premiered in Santa Fe in 2017. Will there be any significant design changes in 2019?
D.O.: As of now, there are very few changes in the projections, but that doesn’t mean we won’t walk into the theater and discover new ideas.
G.M.: However, if it ain’t broke…..!