By Ilana Bernstein

At The Clarice, operas take about twice as long to design compared to musicals. For operas, The Clarice takes about a year to design the show. For musicals, it takes about a semester. Why is this? What is so different about the two?

“Certainly scale is a big part of it,” said Robert Siler, the lighting designer for the Maryland Opera Studio’s upcoming spring opera at The Clarice. “Sometimes it’s as simple as like, [with] a straight play, there’s not as much going on that is as intricate to design and deal with as a three-hour-long opera.”

The School of Music’s Maryland Opera Studio is presenting “The Orpheus Adventure: Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice, Offenbach: Orphée aux enfers,” which contains two different versions of the Orpheus myth.  One is a dark and heavy version, while the other is satirical.

“Everything about [opera] functions slightly differently,” said Heather Jackson, costume designer for “The Orpheus Adventure.” “From the stage rules to the performers that kind of work in their zone for the most part. So I think it’s just an interesting machine to get into and understand how it works. Especially [at The Clarice], you are really getting the opportunity to learn a slightly different process which is really interesting.”

The Metropolitan Opera plans about two years in advance, according to Siler. In an article titled “Making Opera of Art and Vice Versa,” author Michael Cooper highlights artist William Kentridge, who worked on the production of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” for the Metropolitan Opera.

“Two years might seem like a long time to work on a new opera production,” Cooper wrote. “But when it is by Mr. Kentridge, who is following in the footsteps of major visual artists like Picasso, Chagall and David Hockney in making the leap from gallery to stage, a long lead time is essential. [Kentridge’s] opera productions, like many of his museum pieces, are known for the painstakingly drawn animated films he creates.”

Siler and Jackson explained that in their experiences, regional theater actively works on a show between a maximum of six to eight months and minimum of three to four months. That is quite a contrast to the timeframe for a production at the Metropolitan Opera.

“Because everything about opera is bigger for the most part, unless if you are working on an operetta or in a small space like a chamber opera, the patterns are bolder, the colors are bigger, across the board you are getting to do bigger gestures of work,” Jackson said.

In opera, the main event is the music, according to Siler. Lighting plays the very important role in helping to shape the production.

“A lot of [lighting] is there to heighten the emotions of the piece,” Siler said.

Siler explained that the coherence of the music and the mood of the lighting are vital to the success of the production.

“If the music is telling you one thing about the world — if it’s bubbly, if it’s flowing melodies — then you want your design to reflect that, you don’t want it to be something harsh or jagged,” Siler said.

For Jackson, she starts with the concept and the research. She works on developing the ideas, designing and figuring out the big picture. For the spring opera at The Clarice, she asks the question “how do we create a visual vocabulary?”

“You want to be sure that you are creating a world where the visual vocabulary [and] the rules make sense,” Jackson said. “That you’re bringing together two or three different concepts into one vision.”

Designers have been busy at work at The Clarice in order to make sure the  spring opera, one of the big events at the University of Maryland’s School of Music, is ready to go. The Maryland Opera Studio’s performance and all of its design will run through April 15.

Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo credit courtesy of Veronique Mergaux on Flickr.

Ilana Bernstein is a junior journalism and theatre double major and can be reached at

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