Looking At The Opera

Considering which member of an opera’s creative team tends to call the shots, Anne Midgette writes in the New York Times, “We have seen the age of the singer, the age of the conductor and, now, the age of the director.” No one, apparently, worries much about the set designer, but that doesn’t mean the Canadian Opera Company (COC) isn’t spoiling us with spectacle. While critics and fans wring their hands over the rise of director-led conceptual productions, the COC has been mounting the most visually arresting theatre in Toronto. With two gorgeous productions opening this month, I’d like to tip my hat to the COC’s recent slate of remarkable set designers.

Gianni Schicchi, presented in a double-bill with A Florentine Tragedy, is the latest COC production to dazzle. In Puccini’s hilarious one-act romp, a family discovers their recently deceased uncle has left it all to charity, and they enlist their friend Gianni Schicchi in forging an alternate will. All the while, a hoarder’s mountain of furniture, art, golf clubs, books, lampshades, and the like—designed by Wilson Chin—looms in the background. Other visual delights (I won’t spoil them for you) await the audience as the family climbs and paws the heap, desperate to keep their uncle’s land, his mills, and his precious mule from going to the monks. In a Toronto Star piece on the building of the junk pile director Catherine Malfitano said she wanted to show “the things that stay behind when we are gone.” Eventually the claustrophobic death chamber gives way to an expansive beauty, and yet the hoard remains, stubbornly holding its ground in the new light.

The family astride the hoard while the notary looks over the will in Gianni Schicchi. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Visual artist Zhang Huan brings a four hundred and fifty year old Ming Dynasty temple on stage for his production of Handel’s Semele. Mixing visual materials from different nations and eras, Zhang’s set provides a fitting backdrop for the Canadian premier of a Belgian production of a baroque English opera written by a German composer about an ancient Greek woman.

A scene from the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie production of Semele. Photo: © Forster.

Jean Rabasse designed Love From Afar’s network of silks, projections, lamps, columns and lattice screens. The pieces were raised, lowered, blown, lit, and intertwined for a dizzying array of combinations that backstopped the actors, whether they were on the ground or lifted by wire far above the stage.

The Pilgrim sings amid silk with Jaufré above in Love From Afar. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Footage from the UK premier of Love From Afar.

Allen Moyer’s set for the new production of Nixon In China had a lot to live up to, with the original production having many iconic visual moments including the descent of Nixon’s plane the Spirit of ’76 in Act I. Rather than trying to outgun the original production, Moyer went for a more cerebral approach, surrounding his singers with televisions playing archival footage of news broadcasts covering Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

The feast in the Great Hall of the People, with Nixon speaking to Premier Chou in Nixon In China. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Aida sported what COC technical director Barney Bayliss calls “the largest piece of flying scenery we have ever built.” Hildegard Bechtler’s set used the huge flying bridge (“Its footprint is larger than my house”, says Bayliss) as a ceiling for the first half of the opera. Toward the end, the music stopped while the bridge was lowered to frame the lovers’ tomb underneath. The chilling descent was silent but for the sound of chain hoists and the occasional gasp from the audience.

The bridge sits in darkness above Aida and Radames in their tomb in Aida. Photo: Michael Cooper.

The behind-the-scenes footage somewhat belies the scale of the bridge.


A Florentine Tragedy/Gianni Schicchi opened April 26th at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. Semele opens May 9th.

About the author

David Ritter

David Ritter is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. His writing has appeared previously in Cokemachineglow and in Spacing Magazine. He plays in The Strumbellas and is writing a dissertation on 18th Century history writing and the rise of the novel.

By David Ritter