The process of designing a set is fluid and ongoing. Both practical and aesthetic considerations often change as ideas develop, and references and inspirations can come and go throughout. When designing the set for Werther, we went through a few versions, finding the balance we needed between naturalism and abstraction, what we needed practically, what best embraced the brief and what chimed as the right decisions for the piece when looking at the set and listening to the music.
Ideas often come and go as the set is designed, and sometimes they get completely scrapped, but often an element or echo remains. For example, at one point a crucial reference for us was the photography of Gregory Crewdson. The way his photography depicted domestic scenes, with a stark beauty, a heightened naturalism and a layered perspective was one of the foremost visual references in creating our setting. However, as we continued the process, the set developed and we went in a different direction. The naturalism felt too detailed and overpowering for the brief, so we moved on to something more theatrical, more poetic. In this case, some elements did remain however, the layered perspective was still useful and exciting, but the direct connection was no longer prevalent.
There can be various reasons for leaving an idea behind and finding a new one. As a director it is important to know how the space is to be used, whether the characters can interact and be affected by their surroundings in the most helpful way. A simple change in how one reads a line can mean a new reaction is needed in the design. Ongoing research often leads to a change of tack, practical necessities or budget constrains become clear, but all of these filters generally lead to a set which makes more sense – the ideas more defined.
Moving on from an idea can be a difficult process, as one can get attached to certain elements. The crucial thing is to make sure one only hangs on to ideas when they are good, not just because they are familiar. Challenging oneself to keep looking, and keep refining ideas is a good thing, questioning how someone who has not gone through the same process you have will look at the outcome.
It’s been an enjoyable design process. From the start Oliver (Platt, director) was interested in the domestic rituals and routines embodied by the character of Charlotte. We discussed the opera in terms of nature vs social obligation; Charlotte and Werther’s desire to be together against her duty to Albert and her family.
We also knew we would be placing our musicians on stage with the action and so had the beginnings of an interesting approach in which opposing yet complimentary forces became a key factor.
Gregory Crewdson became an early reference. His photographs are often geometrically balanced in composition and feature an everyday environment coupled with a surreal element. To contextualise this for our production, it was the naturalism of the story set against the immediate presence of the musicians. There is little of Crewdson evident in the final look of the design but he was an important marker along the way.
Another subtle influence was James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a painter who named several of his portraits ‘Symphony in’ a particular colour. It became easy to see compositional/tonal similarities between these works by Whistler, Crewdson’s photos, and some of the simple pictures of kitchens that we had gathered.
We began to see Charlotte’s everyday world in terms of calm and balance, while Werther’s world, which is also the musicians’ world, is rendered as a simple, black and abstract space framing the naturalistic space that Charlotte inhabits.
I hope this allows the two parts of the opera to exist in harmony with one another and yet in direct tension at the same time: the reality of the story of Werther set starkly within the abstract and emotional world of the music that drives it.