Designing a 1920’s Paris: “The Merry Widow” Gets a Time Period Makeover
Music, Opera, University Center for the Arts | March 26, 2013
By Megan Waugh
You are sitting at a party in a swanky art-deco ballroom in 1920’s Paris on a hazy summer’s evening with the majestic Eiffel Tower in clear view out the nearest window. You watch as elitists arrive in their
finest attire, gossiping and giving each other the once over. Music begins to play and the gentlemen sweep the elegant ladies off their chairs and around the room. In this moment you are completely lost in the beauty of the scene, and it feels almost surreal to be witnessing it.
Sound intriguing? This isn’t a scene from a Woody Allen movie or a romantic dream sequence; this is a description of what you’ll encounter if you attend CSU and the Reta Ralph Opera Center’s production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow.
This operetta tells the story of a rich widow, Hanna Glawari, and her countrymen’s attempt to keep her money in the principality by finding her the right husband. Count Danilo Danilovitsch, who was once in love with a penniless Hanna before her marriage, vies for her affection, but his efforts ignite a back-and-forth war of the roses. This romantic comedy is filled with twists and turns that will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
All of the action takes place across ballrooms and gardens in 1920’s Paris, straying from the early 1900’s time period in which the operetta is originally set.
“The 20′s were a time of beautiful design, both in terms of architecture and clothing, so it afforded the design team lots of opportunity to create something beautiful on stage,” said Tiffany Blake, the director of CSU’s production of the show. “The post-WWI era was also a time of breaking boundaries and enjoying life, so the atmosphere of going to clubs (like Maxim’s in the operetta) and living the life of a playboy like the main character Danilo, was a good parallel.”
To achieve this 1920’s look, Taylor Webster, CSU’s master carpenter and theatre program alum, was tasked with designing the set for the production.
Webster got her inspiration for the set from the “opulence and decadence of the 1920s, specifically the height of the Art Deco period in Paris.” She drew from hotel lobby architecture, images from film sets, architectural details and motifs, and postcards from the era.
“For such a specific era, period detail and research is very important,” said Webster. “The main scenic unit is inspired by the Strand Hotel lobby in London; I loved the clean lines, the illuminated quality of the revolving door and the columns, and the overall sense of decadence. For the backdrop we recreated the Paris skyline based off a lovely photo I found of the city in a hazy dawn/dusk state, and in the style of postcards from the time period.”
After Webster finished researching how she wanted the set to look, she began to work on bringing the design to life.
“Bringing a design to life is always a highly collaborative process,” said Webster. “I started by working with Dr. Blake and the rest of the design team to create the look and feel of the show in a conceptual sense, and together we made sure that the visual and thematic needs as well as the practical staging needs were met by the scenic design concept.”
Afterwards, she began to solidify these conceptual ideas into scale drawings and paint renderings, working with the technical directors and the paint charge artist to brainstorm construction solutions, paint techniques, and other problem-solving elements.
“One of my favorite parts about working with the CSU team is everyone’s willingness to come together and offer solutions, from using fluorescent ceiling tiles to illuminate the walls and columns to reupholstering stock furniture to create period-accurate pieces,” Webster notes.
Students from the Theatre Department and practicum students with an interest in set design are involved in the construction of the set.
“We try to create processes for construction and paint that give students meaningful and accessible opportunities to contribute,” said Webster. “Working in the shops and watching the set come together piece by piece is incredibly rewarding. They see the design come to life and begin to exist in a real, three-dimensional sense.”
Webster describes seeing the actors on stage as the biggest payoff for all the work that goes into set design.
“My favorite part of any scenic design is final dress rehearsal – seeing the actors in costume inhabiting the world we’ve worked together to create, enhanced by lighting and music,” she said.
Webster’s hope for The Merry Widow is that that the audience “comes away with a sense of beauty that is inspired by an elegant union of harmonious elements.”
“For me, the mark of a good scenic design is the ability to transport the audience to another time and place, and to support and enhance the storytelling in a way that is cohesive with the production style,” she said.
Don’t miss this fun, lighthearted, and visually glorious operetta set in a world where champagne flows freely, life’s troubles are of the highest aristocratic nature, and everything is seen through a golden, dreamlike haze.
The Merry Widow Performances:
March 29 & 30, 7:30 p.m., April 6, 7:30 p.m., and April 7, 2 p.m.
Presented by the Charles & Reta Ralph Opera Center
Directed by Tiffany Blake and Conducted by Wes KenneyGriffin Concert Hall, University Center for the Arts 1400 Remington Street, Fort Collins, CO
The University Center for the Arts at Colorado State University provides an enriched venue in which the study and practice of Art, Dance, Music and Theatre are nurtured and sustained by building the skills and knowledge needed by future generations of arts professionals to become contributors to the essential vitality of our culture and society. For more information, visit www.UniversityCenterfortheArts.com.