Soon after the world premiere of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at the Santa Fe Opera, which made use of shimmering video technology to present the tale of the obsessive iPhone genius and his personal demons, director Kevin Newbury and his design team turned their attention to another genius devilishly obsessed.
Lyric Opera of Chicago — ‘Faust’ When: March 3-21 Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets/info: lyricopera.org
Gounod’s “Faust” had long been due for a new production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and “the stars aligned” — as the company’s general director Anthony Freud put it — when Freud learned of Newbury’s interest in directing a novel collaborative version of the French Romantic opera about the doomed, overreaching mortal in a pernicious bargain.
Newbury had learned of an enthralling body of new visual work by the artist John Frame, an esteemed California sculptor and videographer who had already spent years developing strange puppets and stop-frame animations on the subject of a Faust-like artist drawn to a deadly flame.
“The minute I walked in to John’s studio, I just didn’t want to leave,” Newbury said. “His entire imagination and world view was in every single corner. It showed a deep sense of the complexities of human nature and had a real darkness met with a certain whimsy and humor. I had never seen anything like it.”
A co-production deal between the Lyric and the Portland Opera soon materialized, with Frame given the title of production designer and Newbury as director, with some of the design team from the “Steve Jobs” opera to help translate Frame’s vision.
“This is the first time John has designed for the theater,” said Freud, “and yet on a different level he has been designing for theater all his life. The world that he has spent years imagining is mysterious, romantic, sinister and essentially a 19th century realm that I realized was a perfect fit for Gounod’s ‘Faust.’ ”
Frame said the opera’s appeal is that it asks one of the fundamental human questions: “What happens if I get to some point in my life,and I just feel like I’m completely in a trap and wasting my life in some way? What do I do about it? Faust takes an extreme approach. He calls upon the Devil instead of a job counselor.”
As the opera begins, Mephistopheles (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) makes the deal from Hell with Faust (tenor Benjamin Bernheim), conjuring an image of the lovely Marguerite (soprano Ailyn Perez will sing the role in all performances except March 21, when Ana María Martínez will step in) to entice him. Faust bargains away his soul after death for youthful vigor now. He then seduces and abandons Marguerite, who goes mad and is condemned to Hell herself. In the end, the angels save her.
The set and costume designer for “Faust” is Vita Tzykun, who also created the “Steve Jobs” sets. For her, the Chicago challenge “was as if Anthony Freud came to me and asked me to design ‘Faust’ in the style of Picasso, only Picasso is alive and well and willing to collaborate, and a wonderful human being.”
Up in the Lyric’s costume shop, Tzykun pointed to Frame’s influence in the four giant, uniquely differentiated head masks that will be worn by Mephistopheles’ assistant fiends. The heads will be donned by non-singing actors whose job will be to shadow Faust and intervene on the Devil’s behalf.
Tzykun was delighted to learn that the Lyric Opera already had “d3″ technology — also called “disguise” — in the company’s arsenal.
“Santa Fe had to get it for us, but Lyric already had it here,” she said. “It’s basically a video editing program that allows you to put video projections into a timeline that is merged with music, so it can happen in sync. Before, you needed five different programs to do something like this. And now developers understand there is a need to combine all this into one program that can respond to movement, respond to sound.”
Freud said Chicago audiences already have seen d3 at work. The technology was responsible for the Trojan horse in Berlioz’ “Les Troyens,” and in Puccini’s “Turandot” it was used to create the “seeing eye” that rests in a dragon’s claw.
Videos and animated stop-action sequences figure so prominently in “Faust” that the team is collaborating with projection designer David Adam Moore and lighting designer Duane Schuler. Said Newbury: “The best idea wins, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”
A prominent feature of the stage design is a large, puppet-like figure that has long been a part of Frame’s work. The mysterious figure is often seen peering through a vast series of lenses.
“I think at the very outset we made the decision that Faust would be an artist,” Frame said. “All my work on Faust has him in his atelier with objects he has created. In a sense, Mephistopheles is sculpted out of Faust’s own psyche. So that gave us permission to work around some of the more archaic things in the opera, to include some things that make sense intuitively, if not necessarily logically.”
Also striking are the many unsettling eyes hand-stitched into an “eye-coat.” Stop-action video makes them they look quite real, blinking, even shedding a tear. Frame found a little group of them on the Internet from excavations in Germany in areas that had been associated with porcelain-doll factories in the late 19th century.
“That production stopped as a result of WWI and WWII as the factories were either repurposed or destroyed,” he said. “These factories apparently buried their seconds behind the buildings. And at the time I was looking, people were beginning to excavate those dump sites.
“So the eyes just started showing up,” Frame said. “They are hand-blown glass, and they come as small as one millimeter all the way up to human scale. Knowing that this project was enormous, I just started buying all of them I could find. What’s so compelling about them in part is that they were flawed in some way. The pupil was slightly off, or there was damage on the side. Flaws are at the core of my work. Those eyes just spoke to me.”
Nancy Malitz is a Chicago freelance writer.