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How to Design an LA Opera Production

Reposted from LA Weekly's Public Spectacle Arts & Culture Blog:

Cinderella (La Cenerentola)

LA Opera's current production of Rossini's La Cenerentola (aka Cinderella) has no glass slippers, no coach that turns into a pumpkin, no evil stepmother and absolutely no bippity boppity boo. But it is a fun visual feast, a comic opera in cartoon colors, thanks largely to the work of set and costume designer Joan Guillén. Guillén, who has taught set design in Barcelona for 40 years, makes his LA Opera debut with La Cenerentola, which opened to a sold-out house at the Dorothy Chandler on March 23.

Cinderella (La Cenerentola) - Alidoro Sketches

Gioachino Rossini, known especially for The Barber of Seville, was only in his twenties when he and his librettist pal Jacopo Ferretti cranked out La Cenerentola in three weeks, but he had already established himself as an innovative composer adept at mixing comedy with moments of pathos. Ferretti replaced the glass slipper with two sparkly bracelets and the fairy godmother with a Dumbledore-esque tutor/wizard. But otherwise, La Cenerentola, which premiered in 1817, has the catchy tunes and rapid-fire alliterative articulation for which Rossini is loved.Guillén, the LA Opera production's designer, is also a cartoonist, illustrator and sculptor, and he brought all of these sensibilities into play when designing the costumes and sets for La Cenerentola, incorporating animated colors and geometric forms into his pieces. He cites as influences Constructivism (an industrial, angular style with geometric elements) and, more recently, Minimalism (a design philosophy in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect).

In La Cenerentola, large bustles and wirework give the designs a sculptural quality, and bold, primary costume colors illustrate character. "All of my scenic work is characterized by the use of a rich palette," Guillén says in an interview, translated from Spanish. "As a viewer, I'm tired of the abuse of black and white in many of the productions I see. It seems that scenic designers have a fear of using color."

However, Guillén says he distinguishes "between the use of vivid colors that illuminate personality in the characters from the color that I utilize in the scenery. In La Cenerentola, the scenery is at first gray, and later the light transforms into color planes. That always makes it a neutral background for the vivid colors worn by the characters, since they are the real stars."

For example, the hammy evil stepsisters sport Marge Simpson hair in nearly neon pink and yellow, with tiny feathered hats perched comically on top. The prince's courtiers wear cobalt blue wigs, the hems of their multi-tiered, multi-colored coats held out in a circle with wire.

Cinderella at the Ball

Inspired by the world of cartoons, he says, "I have incorporated in my scenic designs just the essential features needed to understand the character that's being portrayed or an element of the scene...In the operas of Rossini, the characters are direct, and show their souls as they appear. It's not a psychological theater, where you need to explain the whole opera to understand how a character is."My designs have to be clear and emphatic as they appear onstage," he adds. "For example, the use of the color violet to draw Don Magnifico [Cinderella's stepfather]: this color is a pale reflection of the former glory of another era, but shows he is still resisting fading away definitively."

As a reflection of her innocence, Cinderella is always clothed in pale, neutral colors, from her gray and beige rags to her shiny white ballgown, virginal veil and curled wig. Her only spot of color is her vibrant red hair, displaying that her "color" is a natural part of her, not an affectation like her garishly dressed stepsisters.

Although he says he gets "excited about any job," Guillén confesses that he would love to be able to apply his talents to a Wagner opera, with their drama and psychological complexity. "It would be a beautiful challenge."

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