Backstage

Rigoletto’s cardboard box

A performance, a recollection — By Jean-Yves Dary

In his production of Rigoletto, currently running at the Opéra Bastille, Claus Guth sets the opera’s action inside an immense cardboard box which evolves along with the plot… An opportunity for us to discover a department that is little known to the general public but essential to the Paris Opera: the design office. As part of the Technical Department, it is indispensable to the realisation of productions at Bastille and Garnier. Department head Frédéric Crozat, deputy head Benoît Dheilly, and artist and “project designer” Jean-Yves Dary talk to us about their work and the creation of that impressive box.    

Frédéric Crozat, Benoît Dheilly and Jean-Yves Dary :

When the scenographer’s model arrives at the design office, our mission is to respect it scrupulously so that it can become a physical reality: we then evaluate what is feasible or not and draw up the set plans, taking into account the mechanical constraints and general safety considerations specific to each of the two theatres.
First, we need to ensure that the sets as conceived can actually work on stage. Two people whom we call the “implanters” verify the feasibility of the set, tableau by tableau, with the aid of models that show how the elements of the set will move on stage as the story progresses. This work will condition the construction of the set elements. For Rigoletto’s box we asked ourselves all sorts of questions: at the end of the performance, how is it packed away? During a performance is it fixed or is it mobile? How many artists will be standing on it? If all sets are unique in their genre, those for Rigoletto posed several problems: there were numerous mechanical elements that had to be set in place since the cardboard box does not stop changing, opening, growing and shrinking throughout the entire opera… 

Rigoletto, Opéra national de Paris, 2016
Rigoletto, Opéra national de Paris, 2016 © Monika Rittershaus

During the second stage, the artists and project designers in the design office create the building plans for the sets for each of the workshops. Beyond the highly technical aspect of our job, the aesthetic quality of our work is essential: a set is, above all, “the art of deception”. It is always a highly precise approach. The funny thing with Rigoletto was that the model we were given was already made out of cardboard. So, we used it to measure the corrugations in the material to recreate them as realistically as possible. Then it was a question of finding the right material: here, as often, it was polystyrene covered in fiberglass. Finally, the paint workshop set about finding the right colour tones to best recreate the appearance of cardboard. In this way, we were able to make swatches which we showed to the set designer prior to them being chosen.

We never judge a director’s aesthetic choice: our freedom only extends to the choice of techniques that we use. However, it is interesting to know the spirit of a production; here, the scenographer explained to us that the cardboard box was meant to translate the hero’s psychological confinement: the spectator lives the drama through the eyes of a broken Rigoletto reliving the tragedy that caused the death of his daughter Gilda.

Each set is unique, and to see the end result of our work, from the model as it was initially designed through to the real life set, is particularly gratifying, all the more so given that it all occurs over a very short period of time. Each season, we’re left with wonderful memories and Rigoletto was a beautiful adventure.

Interviewed by Juliette Puaux

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