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Backstage: Is three the magic number for opera?

Figaro Gets a Divorce. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro both feature a loveable rogue called Figaro. Welsh National Opera has recently premiered a third opera alongside them: Figaro Gets a Divorce by Elena Langer, featuring the same character, and is now taking all three operas on a UK tour.

The juggling act of premiering a new opera, staging three operas as a trilogy and managing a tour has kept production manager Richard Norton extremely busy. “The biggest issue,” he says, “has been scheduling – who can have what and when. Some of the cast are in all three shows, too, and there’s a limited amount of time before their voices get tired. It’s not like actors rehearsing.”

Norton is used to managing large productions. WNO’s home is the Wales Millennium Centre, which seats almost 2,000. “Designers love this space – and they want to fill it,” Norton explains. “We’ve got a big proscenium arch and they want to put a big picture in it.”

 The Barber of Seville. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The Barber of Seville. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

These shows all kick off at WMC, but they have to be scalable for other venues. “The brief [for designer Ralph Koltai] was that it had to fit into the smallest touring venues. Usually, you have to factor in cutting down for touring, or designing new items for the road. Because it’s based on an opera that Ralph designed for us in the 1990s, it already had the footprint for Oxford, Bristol and Southampton.

“The design is basically two mirrored walls and a large triangular track. The walls are 6m by 6m, they spin, and they can track on and off stage. Frames attach to each side and they swivel around. They go on and off-stage thanks to a kind of diagonal traverse.”

What have been the biggest challenges with these productions?

“The concept was that we had one frame that had panels attached to it on each side. However, in Barber of Seville, Ralph wanted the walls to be translucent. That didn’t work, so there needed to be a standalone piece, where the panels could be moved and placed. They’re much chunkier than we’d planned, so we then had to get the paintshop to work through different finishes so you could get a transparent and an opaque wall, depending on the lighting.

“The big challenge is not that, though; it’s how we go between each production and how we fit the panels in, and what sort of turnaround times we have. In theory, we’ve got something that’s more touring-friendly than three standalone shows, but we’ve got rigging issues in different venues and we’ve got to get everything in exactly the same spot, so there will be challenges ahead of us to get it all on the road.”

Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts in the WNO Marriage of Figaro at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.
Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts in the WNO Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

With any move from concept to reality, there have been compromises and adjustments, too. “The panels turned out to be weightier than we hoped,” Norton explains. “We tried to use painted cloths where possible, but there are panels that have doors and mirrors and things attached, so they have to have a bit more structure to them.

“Each director [the three shows have different directors] has a different vision, too, and they see the set differently and have different requirements. The issue comes with the directors having to fit into the design. Each show has to deliver something different, so this abstract, minimal design is pretty challenging creatively as well as technically.”

Despite having the same basic set, Norton assures me that all three productions look very different. “There have been quite a few adjustments with masking and balancing, around how high the truss sits for different shows, with how we use the panels. Barber looks completely different from Marriage, and then Divorce references Marriage but is different again.

“It’s been a challenge for Linus [Fellbom], the lighting designer, to set up a rig that works for all three. It’s a good thing that we’ve had the same lighting designer – it would have been really hard to have three different ones.”

Managing a tour brings its own complications, of course, not least how to transport and safely store the set as it travels around the country. How has the team ensured that everything is robust enough to survive a tour that takes in Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton, Llandudno, Milton Keynes and Birmingham?

“Some things have a limited lifespan on the road, and there’ll be damage that we have to deal with. That’s always factored in. The fact that a lot of the painted surfaces are cloths means that they can come down and be put into bags – that helps to  protect them a lot. It’s only the structure that gets loaded on the trailer. Some of the design already has an aged look, which is a little bit more forgiving. It’s quite wise to do that for a touring show – that’s Ralph using his years of experience!

“You know, you could always have more time to work things out, but with the time constraints we’ve had, I think each team has done remarkably well.”

CV: Richard Norton – production manager, Welsh National Opera

Richard-Norton-WNOBorn: 1970, Adelaide, Australia
Training: None. Worked as an actor with a small theatre company in Adelaide and as a theatre technician and events manager.
Landmark productions
As an actor: Neighbours (1985); Home and Away (1988)
As production manager: Producer of a digital arts project co-commissioned by WNO and the Space, 2014, Retail and events management, Puravida Boardriders, Penarth, Wales 2014-15, Death of a Salesman, freelance assistant production manager, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2015, Summer season production of Pelleas et Melisande, freelance production manager, Welsh National Opera, 2015, As You Like It, production manager, National Theatre, directed by Polly Findlay and designed by Lizzie Clachan, 2015, The Figaro Trilogy (production manager, Welsh National Opera, 2015-16)

CV: Linus Fellbom – lighting designer, set designer, director

Linus FellbomBorn: 1977, Stockholm, Sweden
Training: Lighting apprentice at Deutsche Oper Berlin (1997)
Landmark productions
As lighting designer: Forsta Varningen by August Strindberg, Teater Infernetto (Strindberg Festival, Stockholm, 1995), A Chorus Line, Goteborg Opera, 2002, Antigone by Sophocles, Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, 2003, Thais, LA Opera, 2013, Juliet and Romeo by Mats Ek, Royal Swedish Ballet, 2013, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and Figaro Gets a Divorce, Welsh National Opera, 2016
As director: Sympathy for the Devil by Lucas Svensson, Strindberg Intima Teater, Stockholm, 2005, Richard III by William Shakespeare, Riksteatern, touring company, Sweden, 2006
As set designer: La Boheme and Rigoletto, NorrlandsOperan, Norrland, Sweden, 2010

WNO’s Figaro Forever trilogy tours until April 9

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