A production remembered

The sets of Parsifal

An encounter with Jean-Philippe Morillon and Stéphane Parain

By Aliénor Courtin 10 June 2022


© Christophe Pelé / OnP

The sets of Parsifal

Parsifal, directed by Richard Jones, entered the Paris Opera repertoire in 2018. Several elements of the set represent the character of Titurel, Amfortas' father and founder of the community of the Knights of the Grail. For the revival of this production, Octave magazine meets Jean-Philippe Morillon, head of the painting workshop, who created the fresco of Titurel, and Stéphane Parain, sculptor, who created his bust. They go back over the design stages of both elements.

How did you first learn about the fresco and bust project for the production of Parsifal?

Jean-Philippe Morillon: " At the creation of Parsifal, in 2017, we learned about the project of a fresco inspired by the biblical Last Supper from the artistic director of the workshops, José Sciuto. Sometimes we work directly with the scenographer, but for Parsifal this was not the case."

Stéphane Parrain: "In the sculpture workshop, it was also José Sciuto who first presented the project to us. The then head of the department, Angelika Potier, gave us more detailed information. I was immediately excited about the project because it was a question of portraying the performer of Titurel, a very exciting task."

A large-scale project starts with a model. Tell us about this preparatory work.

J-P. M.: "To create the model, we worked from various documents provided by Ultz, the set designer. He sent us photos of a fesco entitled "Pilgrim's progress" painted in a church in Eastbourne in the south of England, by Hans Feibusch, a German artist in the 1950s. Interpreting a set designer's request when he or she is not present is never easy because you have to put together several, sometimes contradictory elements. We knew that Ultz wanted us to revisit the Last Supper. He asked for a composition, very "down to earth, around a banquet, with chairs set out, and with characters positioned in a circle around the table contrasted but this idea contrasted with Feibusch's very etheral composition. Nevertheless, he wanted us to use pastel pink tones like in Hans Feibusch's pictures.

From there, we made three trial models to try to find the best response to his expectations. As the models evolved, we gradually became aware of the difficulties. For example, we had to find the right colour schemes, bearing in mind the constraint that the characters had to have blue shirts and green embroidered chasubles.

This research is carried out in teams because dialogue is essential. For these three models, I worked with Gisèle Rateau and Thierry Desserprit, who has since retired. We each prepared a proposal for a model. I remember very well the day we showed the three models to Ultz, we were anxious. After a moment of silence, he said "it's great, it's very clever", we were relieved. We had worked hard on this project. Out of the three proposals, he chose Gisèle's."

S. P.: "Like Jean-Philippe, the scenographer first sent us a photo of a bust of Kennedy, because he thought he bore a certain resemblance to the singer, but also to show us roughly what shape the final bust should have, its style and its era. It wasn't a classical bust in Louis XIV-style but, rather, something contemporary, from the sixties or seventies. I had to place the singer's face on this foundation. It's always enjoyable to do a portrait because there's a lot of research into the facial features. It's an exercise in sculpture that has existed since the origin of the discipline, which goes back to antiquity. We sometimes have few indications from the scenographer. There are always a lot of questions. We never really know what we should or shouldn't keep from the photo he has sent us. What seems obvious to him is not obvious to us. I remember that on this photo, the sculpture had a very bumpy, rough aspect, you could sense that it had been sculpted with tools. The finish was gold leaf, so I decided to go for a smooth look instead and that was exactly what he wanted. This requires us to make proposals and then establish a dialogue to get as close as possible to the set designer's vision."

So you were personally in charge of creating these set elements. What were the design stages?

J-P. M.: "I created the fresco using acrylic paint. We started working on this project a few months before the premiere. The panels were already prepared and painted pink by subcontractors. The coordination between subcontracting and installation left us little time, and we had to finish the fresco at night, which is exceptional.

We painted it vertically, along the walls of the workshop. Usually, this is done on the floor, in the Italian style, which means that you walk on it. For Parsifal, it was an intermediate format, between easel painting and large format.

We always start by painting the less precise elements, like the sky. Then we focus on the characters. It's a real team effort, we talk to each other a lot.

For the colours of the palette, we made choices inspired by the costumes. We found a green that resembled that of the performers' chasubles. These colours are the result of the director's choice, who wanted to give this rather sectarian and communitarian aspect to the knights and to their religion."

S. P.: "For the bust, once the clay model was completed, we made a silicone mould. This mould allows us to make plaster casts, which are more solid and resistant than clay. From this plaster we were able to make an enlargement, with the method of squaring up. For the bust, the model was only fifty centimetres high. So we multiplied it by six so that the final bust was three metres high. We use polystyrene for projects of this size, which has the advantage of being very light and easily sculpted.

Once sanded down as much as possible, the piece is sent to the composites workshop where it is laminated. Like for a boat, that produces a hard and resistant shell. Finally the painters apply a finishing coat and gold leaf.

I worked alone on this bust, but we always ask for our colleagues' opinions because it's important to have an outside viewpoint to offer us new perspectives and point out elements that need to be accentuated or softened. Depending on the size of the projects, we adapt the size of the teams, in particular by calling upon intermittent sculptors

I didn't meet the singer who served as our model. I worked from a few photos from various periods, which was a challenge to reproduce his portrait faithfully."

© Vincent Pontet / OnP

You are both very attached to your workshops because it is there that all your creations are born. How do you feel when your creations arrive on stage?

J-P. M.: " In Bastille, we are lucky to have a magnificent workshop in which we are able to make things carefully. Our work is extremely precise in terms of colour research. It is important that we can see the final work on the set because light and perspective can sometimes reveal aspects of the canvas that we did not perceive in the studio. "

S. P.: "Our studio is like a personal exhibition space. The sculptures have their own existence there. It's not like on stage where sometimes you only see them for a few minutes. Our relationship with time differs because in the studio we see them for longer. When we see them on stage, the vision is more global, we realise that our achievements are part of a larger whole." 

© Vincent Pontet / OnP

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