Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Paper Trail

Fun times have begun in the HGO prop department as we gear up for the new season. Andre Previn’s world premiere of Brief Encounter calls for a 1937 edition of The London Times. Paper props are one of my specialties, and the need for newspapers turns up frequently in opera productions. It's actually very easy to edit almost any newspaper just by changing the paper's banner, but it's ultimately more fun to search out the actual item. Newspapers have gone through so many changes, from printing, paper quality, size, images and eventually color. It's a great reference to have access to the actual item, but not when it’s being sold for 890 pounds.

So the quest beings… I used several search engines and had very little luck in finding my prize. You'd think major newspapers reprints would be easier to find. I did, however, get a reply from Pieter Collier with, and thus far he has proven to be very helpful. I'm looking to get a reproduction of what their website lists as The London Times October 8, 1937 which includes one of the earliest reviews of Tolkien's book the Hobbit written by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Working, hopefully, from scans of the actual paper, I can make any necessary changes and print as many copies as we need. I also try to make the props something the singers will enjoy. I've done several books, newspapers, menus and invitations that had to have parts of the libretto printed inside. Sometimes, I just like to have fun, like when I translated Britney Spears into Russian for a book in HGO production of Musgorsky’s opera Boris Godunov.

Stay tuned for more on how all this turned out…


Monday, September 8, 2008

Question: What links Minnesota, Portland, Wales, England, Sweden, Germany, Australia and Houston together?

Answer: One element of Houston Grand Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set!

As Technical Director of HGO, I often get to do things that seem …shall we say out of the ordinary. But the back wall and side panels for A Midsummer Night's Dream really take the biscuit (or strudel, biskit, welsh cake, or cookie depending on which of those countries you are in). The pieces look straightforward but, as ever with Dale Ferguson (the designer), there is difficulty, head scratching and fun to be had in even measure.

I have worked with Dale Ferguson twice before and he loves to throw his gauntlet in challenge to Production Managers. HGO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro had scenery and drapes made mainly of paper (yes! paper) and, this set had to tour and, of course, be flameproof. The production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos included a massive “star drop” creating a halo around the embracing lovers with the “stars” all hitting the stage in perfect places.

So at the model showing of HGOs new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream we came prepared and the challenge was this – how do you make lightboxes as big as a basketball court with no visible means of support, paint them completely smooth in colour and then add a completely abstract and freeform design on top……hmmmm. The construction workshop in Portland is happy to paint these huge cloths but Dale feels that he is not going to get the flatness of colour (that he wants) if painters have to roll or spray on such a large area.

There are many wonderful materials that are possible to use and you will have seen some of them on the enormous billboards that advertise along the side of the freeways urging us to retune to Miller Time or to Think Arby’s. The problem with these is that they all require printing in sections and then being joined together and you can always see the seams. However there is a wonderful product called Rear Projection Plastic that can be welded together after it has been printed on in any colour or design (if you know the right people to talk to in Minnesota, although their head office is in Stockholm and the printing presses are mainly in Germany). Easy –let’s print the cloth green and then weld it together after we put a light behind it and then paint it. Or not……..

The green that we want is (of course) a very heavy saturate and when I get the first samples from Sweden they are not right at all (I am now in Wales as I am on vacation by the time all this has moved on to sampling, but I have begged favour from my old employers to use them as a delivery address). Dale and I and our wonderful new colleagues and friends at Big Image have a bizarre conference call to discuss how to fix this–Sweden, Wales, Australia and Germany all agree that this is a big problem. Sometimes with a big problem the only answer is to throw the instruction manual away and go with gut feeling. So they did and more samples are sent to London to another ex-employers stage door (I am on the move – it is vacation after all) and they are better but still not perfect.

A long week later passes and the good people at Big Image have completely changed the rules of how to print on their machines (half the normal speed and with twice the curing time if you are interested) and a very relieved Swede sends the e-mail titled “Breakthrough!” He is right – it is fantastic! The new method has got twice as much ink onto the plastic and the pictures in the email look fabulous. New samples are dispatched to the US (I am back from vacation – very nice thanks for asking) and Australia and we are Go! Go! Go!

Last part of the process is the painting of the trees and forest design and where is the best place to do that?

Near the cloth printers I hear you say. Too obvious.

Near the theatre where the show will be performed? Too easy.

Where the rest of the show is being built? You know we are headed somewhere totally ridiculous don’t you?

How about Australia? –Yes that is about as far away as we can be - so is obviously perfect.

To be fair the costs are still the most reasonable when you factor all elements in. Dale needs to keep a constant eye on the project as it goes along and the paint studio in Melbourne is near him, very large, and very reasonable in price. As there are few other costs this makes perfect sense to take the cloths to him (as freight) rather than bring him to the cloths (as human cargo). Of course that isn’t quite the end as Dale is now working in Sydney as all this sampling has taken a while, but let’s not let that spoil a good story.

The end result is that you will see cloths on stage in Houston that have more Air Miles than a Continental Hospitality and Client Host (or whatever strange name they are given nowadays), have had more research and development time than a new Ford and have been printed using the biggest leap forward since the inkjet printer was first available.

The long and the short of it is – you readers alone will know that they are not just very big green cloths but extremely clever and innovative green cloths that you are seeing onstage (via 3 continents and 5 countries) and you will feel honoured to know this and can boast the inside track to your non-blog reading friends.

Photos are set model conceptions, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera