Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1

THE PERFORMANCE IS THE ART, say IU scenic designers,
but on the way to finished production, musical stage performances must take . . .


A student prepares props near the toes of the sea god Poseidon, whose twelve-foot statue towers behind the scenes at the Indiana University Musical Arts Center.
Photo © Rich Remsberg

By Nick Riddle

The Greek sea god Poseidon is a fixture in the Musical Arts Center at IU Bloomington. His twelve-foot likeness, trident in hand, towers over the expansive floor of the MAC’s paint shop. He’s made of styrofoam, and in his native domain he’d be bobbing along on the surface, but the kingdom of this particular monarch is the stage—where illusion reigns. Since making an appearance in an IU production of Mozart’s Idomeneo some years ago, this imperious statue has watched over activities behind the scenes at the MAC.

At the other end of the scale, a collection of beautifully crafted models lines the shelves of a nearby classroom. Each one is roughly the size of a doll’s house and represents a fully realized scenic design for an opera: a spare but dramatic landscape for Wagner’s Das Rheingold; on the shelf above it, the intricately fashioned interior of a tavern for Tales of Hoffmann.

But, cautions C. David Higgins, IUB professor of music and scenic design, the models should not be treated as art.

“I always remind my students that models and sketches, for all the time they spend on them, are not the end result,” he says. “Not even the finished set is the end result. The performance is the end result, the real art. That’s a collaboration between musicians, performers, designers, the technical crews, everyone involved in the production.”

A short walk away, tucked into the end of a corridor, is the office of Robert O’Hearn, IUB professor emeritus of music and scenic design. Art reference books fill one wall. A half-finished model arch sits on his work table. O’Hearn, too, is circumspect about the role of set design in an opera production. “I don’t like to have a design so elaborate that the audience applauds as soon as the curtain goes up,” he says. “That’s not what a set is for.”

O’Hearn has earned an international reputation in his field, as has Higgins. Both men bring a wealth of experience to their work for the School of Music.

Entering the sixth decade of his distinguished career, O’Hearn’s connections to IU extend back to the forties, when he graduated from IU’s Department of Theatre and Drama. He designed his first opera, Verdi’s Falstaff, in 1951 for the Sarah Caldwell in Boston and went on to design twelve productions for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as for Broadway shows, ballets in San Francisco and New York, and operas at the Chicago Lyric, Miami, and New York City opera companies. After a stint as a visiting professor at IU in 1988, he joined the faculty at the School of Music in 1989. His sets and designs, however, remain in use in major opera houses around the country.

C. David Higgins, left, and Robert O'Hearn prepare exquisite scale-model scenic designs before sets are built for IU Opera Theater performances.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

“I try to bring the same professional approach to productions here,” says O’Hearn of IUB. “That’s why they hired me. And I really enjoy working with young people and passing information along.”

Higgins studied at IU in the sixties with scenic designer Mario Cristini, “one of the last great Italianate romantic illusionists,” he says. He joined the staff of the newly constructed MAC in 1970 as master scenic artist and became a faculty member in 1974. His design work has taken him all over the world, from Korea to Italy to Iceland.

Both designers revel in the facilities at their disposal. “In the seventies, there was no educational theater facility like this in the world,” Higgins points out. The MAC’s design is patterned on the Metropolitan Opera, and its size is only slightly smaller.

“Our paint shop is actually a little bigger than the Met’s,” says Higgins. “It’s thanks to the vision of Herman B Wells and (former School of Music Dean) Wilfred Bain that we have this facility. We can house twenty productions’ worth of costumes. We have a costume shop, a carpentry shop, a welding shop—it’s mind-boggling.”

For the designer, the resources extend outside the building. A crucial part of the design process, explains Higgins, is research, which begins after the designer’s initial meeting with the director, conductor, and choreographer. Whether he needs primary material, such as architectural idioms and period details, or secondary material regarding the mood and atmosphere of the sets, one of Higgins’s first stops is the IU Fine Arts Library, which boasts impressive holdings on every period and genre of art. Some productions take him farther afield, however: for John Adams’s Nixon in China, Higgins traveled to the National Archives to look at photographs from Nixon’s original visit.

Although the designer’s work at this stage in the process—research, floor plans, costume sketches, renderings—may be largely solitary, the collaborative nature of producing musical performances makes itself felt at every turn. The set must be arranged in such a way that the lighting designer can light the scene effectively; platforms and stairways are often included so that a chorus can see the conductor and avoid singing into one another’s backs. Indeed, the quantity of people on a stage is a factor that must always be borne in mind.

“Opera can inspire some outlandishly silly set and costume designs,” says O’Hearn. “But if you do Parsifal in the nude, you’re not giving these student performers much of a start.

“One has to accommodate large numbers of people getting on and off,” Higgins says. “For example, in the ballroom scene during Act Three of La Traviata, the entire chorus has to get on in six bars—that’s about sixty people. The scenic design has to allow for that kind of thing.”

At the MAC, this kind of practicality always wins out over the kind of extravagance often associated with opera productions. “Opera can inspire some outlandishly silly set and costume designs,” says O’Hearn. “But if you do Parsifal in the nude, you’re not giving these student performers much of a start.”

O’Hearn explains that he also reduced the MAC’s production designs from sixty-two to forty-eight feet in width for the sake of the performers. “They get lost in all that space,” he says.

The MAC is an ideal training ground, not only for performers but also for designers, technicians, and craftspeople of every stripe. Each department employs graduate assistants and students working part time. “We’re the second largest student employer on campus, after the libraries,” Higgins says. “And we couldn’t do what we do without them.” Many of the student staff are fine arts and music majors, with a sizeable contingent coming from other units, too.

“They get a practical, hands-on experience of producing opera at a very high level,” Higgins observes, “and they’re exposed to performance culture.”

Under the august eye of Poseidon, students paint the flats using long-handled brushes—a style of scene painting favored in Europe, Higgins explains, because it affords the artist a much broader field of vision than the up-close method involved in using standard paintbrushes.

Around the corner, beside an enormous freight elevator, carpenters attend to scenery with drill, saw, and hammer. Close by is the costume shop, where seamstresses sew pantaloons, fix bodices, stitch capes. And in the practice block near the MAC, the musicians are running through their scales.

“Then everything comes together on opening night,” says Higgins, nodding at one of his models, “and it’s art for three hours. After that, it all goes away and the set becomes a husk again. That’s how it works—the performance is the art. That’s what we’re all here for.”

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