Canadian costume and set designer Michael Levine has worked in a variety of prestigious theatres and opera houses internationally for more than three decades. He created the original set designs for Robert Carsen’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is currently being revived at the English National Opera (ENO), London Coliseum. I spoke to Michael (on the first day of Spring) to discuss the inspiration behind his work; the usage of the green and blue colours, the symbolic relationship between the world, Tytania and Oberon, as well as the floating beds on the ENO set. He also shared his experience of a dramatic transition within design over the course of his career and gave an in-depth account of the role of a set designer.
Tell me what was the inspiration behind the set designs of A Midsummer’s Night Dream?
First thing, I have to say it’s a little hard to remember because the production is 27 years old and I designed it 28 years ago. When I first designed it that was almost three decades ago. My initial inspiration is hard to recall, but the opera has a different flavour to the play. The play has some innate darkness to it, such as the forest and what happens to people when they step out and move deeper and deeper into the unknown. There’s a parallel in both pieces between the forest being the subconscious; a place where anything can happen. It’s really when you leave the structures of civilization. I think Shakespeare was talking about that in the woods—you are really subject to the elements, which are embodied by Tytania and Oberon. The flavour of the opera, the music and the score of the piece lends itself some kind of magical and mystery quality to it. Some kind of sweetness. Inherent in the piece is this discord that’s taking place between Oberon and Tytania. When Robert Carsen first approached me, one of the things that was important to us was that Oberon and Tytania were the ying and yang of the world. On a very simple level, Oberon is the earth and Tytania is the sky. The two are constantly in this battle. Then, we looked at the psychology of the piece, which is about dreaming and sleep. Puck comes up at the end and says, ‘that you have but slumbere’d here while these visions did appear’, and it’s about falling asleep during the performance and the story taking you into a dream state.
When we first started, we played with putting forests on the stage or representations of a forest. As a set designer, you’re confronted with questions like how do you put things on stage that look like a forest and how do you do that for an audience for today? One of the things which can be complicated are the tools at my disposal. I could paint, of course, or I could put real trees on the stage. Whatever I decide to do, though, is in some sense false and is a reconstruction of a forest. No matter how realistic it is, the audience is complicit in the understanding that what is on stage is not a real forest – we are not at a film, we are not actually walking through a forest. Starting from that basis, it frees you up as a designer. Then, we ask ourselves, how is the forest represented in this piece? It’s a place of sleep where the unexpected happens. The deeper the characters move into the forest, the more lost they are. We see that in Act 2. There’s a type of chaos and challenge to it; you have to walk on top of things and crawl under things Then we wanted to examine the psychological level such as where do we dream or where can we get lost? We came across a metaphor of a bed, which we retreat to at the end of the day. It’s a place where we explore our sub-conscious. So we started with the idea of a bed and a landscape of a bed, that being the bed of Oberon and Tytania because they are not sleeping together—Tytania goes to bed alone at the end of Act I. Then we came to the idea that where they slept is the world. That was our starting point and we pursued that. The fairies come on from the beginning and they pull back the bed covers to show you where Oberon and Tytania are sleeping. In Act 3, we wake up and that’s where there is a kind of suspension in the music, which made it clear to us to suspend the beds. That’s vaguely what I can remember from 27 years ago.
What would you say about the differences between Shakespeare’s play and Britten’s opera?
Well, Britten’s score is this moving piece of music accompanied by the words. The difference is when you’re making a play, the actors make the music and the pacing for the acting; when they decide to pause and how they choose to navigate through the piece—that’s their music. Of course, you can put music on top of a play, but it’s the actor’s music you hear. With Britten, his music is present. There’s a kind of underworld he describes in the music, but it is tinged with fairy world, so he delves into the sexuality of the piece. The music floats, it has a lightness and an air to it, and there’s a comedy to the music. Like when the lovers are lost in the forest, the music is not hateful or mean, it is full of delight and a bit of naughtiness. The music is closer to Puck if anything else. My role as a designer is to gather information from all different quarters to find out how the director wants to approach the piece. I have to read up and understand the opera, study it and get close to how Britten wanted to express and relay this to the audience. I find I’m usually working with pieces from the 19th century and I have to ask, what were the intentions of the piece? How was the piece written and how can I show it to an audience in a refreshed way, like how can I dust it off, make it new to the audience and make it feel like the piece was made yesterday? I feel that is my responsibility as well as everyone else in the production. You want the singing and the directing to come through.
You’ve worked on many productions internationally in a variety of venues over the course of your career, like the Barbican for Between Worlds and the London Coliseum for Complicite’s Magic Flute. How important is the size of the venue when you’re designing a set?
It’s interesting because for Between Worlds we knew it would be an installation in a theatre space and I knew I could empty the stage that would become part of the design. Normally at the English National Opera (ENO), I cannot do that. There are two other productions backstage which are piled up in every corner, so you can’t open up the back walls if you intend on using that. There are few spaces that are like working at the Metropolitan Opera to say Zurich, where I work a lot. In Zurich, it’s far more intimate, but with the Met it is huge! I have to ask, would this production work?
The Midsummer Night’s Dream was originally made for the festival Aix-en-Provence, so it was a smaller version, but we have expanded it for English National Opera. What’s exciting for the audience and working in a theatre is these bespoke pieces that you’re seeing. The audience should feel like this show is for that theatre, and I think my job is to make sure the audience isn’t aware that this show that been shoved on stage from another production. I mean this is a complicated production because of the system of flying things out. So, in fact, we have several versions of how that works in some venues. Some venues do not have the right height. There’s a complicated system underneath the cloth. So I do consider the size and the venue, but from a more technical level, the issues that feed into the design, like some companies have subfloors, so things can be lifting – going up and down – where some companies don’t. The ENO stage is concrete, you can’t put a hole in it. Whereas in Zurich the stage is divided into elevators, so that’s very useful. All of these physical elements feed into how you use the space.
What’s the most challenging, yet gratifying set design you’ve made?
I did something for The Dog’s Heart and that was by Alexander Raskatov and it was very challenging because it was a wall that moved up and down the stage, and it could lift and pivot from one point. It was a very complicated system. If you could imagine a big wall held by one point, on the top of it, so the wall could swivel, turn left to right and be lifted up, become angled on top of people’s heads – that was very complicated. I work in Amsterdam a lot and the technical people are brilliant at interpreting design and developing it, so it’s wonderful setting challenges with them.
They recently built a production of mine, that’s The Rake’s Progress, which just recently opened at Amsterdam and before that at Festival d’Aix. That set is a large room made out of paper. Eventually people cut their way through walls. Every night, it was necessary to replace the whole ceiling and the walls with new paper, so that was quite a challenge working with a system where everything had to be replaced. You had a pure white box at the beginning of the production and by the end of the production the stage is a mess. It works really well for The Rake’s Progress as a metaphor and also as a space. The Rake’s Progress is so much about every step that Tom takes away from Anne and him getting further and further away from her, and there’s no coming back. This box being ripped up is a metaphor for their pure and unsullied relationship at the beginning. It’s very poignant at the end when Anne comes to the asylum to visit Tom, and they are in the same place as they were in the beginning, but there is no connection to the beginning—it’s impossible to get back. Having a set rebuilt every day can be complicated, so that was a real challenge. The paper was also difficult on stage; it’s not fireproof, so we had to find special paper that was fireproof and okay for singers to run through. For me, I find that very interesting because I love coming up with an idea that seems impossible and slowly finding my way through to a solution. In that case, I was finding the right paper and once I did, I found there was a particular width to it, so I had to build my set based on the width of the existing paper and all that information fed into the design. It’s a very interesting process. It’s also a collaborative process; I would come up with an idea and along the way I’d be working constantly with the technical staff and they fed back into my designs. I’d work on something and they would go back and readjust my designs in order to get it to work, technically. And then we adjust it again, and again. It goes on for quite a while. It’s a really enjoyable experience.
You’ve watched the transition of design over three decades. What do you think is the most defining thing that has changed within design?
One of the things that I find interesting is the malleability of technology. When I first started to design sets, the lighting designer would just hang their lights and that would be it. They would be up there, in their spot in advance, just hanging there. If they wanted to change the lights, they’d have to get a ladder and refocus them, which can be really time-consuming—the problem you face with working in a theatre is that you’re constantly working against the clock. Whereas now most lights that are up in the air are programmed from the desk. You can make them do a million things; they can have gobos on them, they can turn, have different colours, and you can do all of that in an instant. That’s made lighting an entirely different experience.
Video was something that when I first started didn’t really exist. It slowly started making its way into one of the mediums we began to use and now it is so malleable that you can come up with content and throw it up on the stage—you can see it within a day. Now you can go back and search for an image on the internet. When I was working there was no internet, but now you can find things from different places or search engines, and you can see if it works right. That would have been a few days work, so technology and the way I work has changed; I mostly work through a computer now. The way I visualise and the way I construct design is also different. So, I would say technology has transformed the way I work, and I think that has played into how people can explore something that affects lighting, sound and video. It has become tools you can use whereas before you were part of the live process working in the theatre. Design-wise it hasn’t changed much. In fact, I think that designers have become more of an important part of the process in productions.
What advice would you give to an aspiring set designer?
Good question! I think it’s really tough. I know that’s not inspiration, but I have a lot of assistants working and juggling various jobs; they are working with me and working on smaller shows. It’s really a question of getting work and keeping at the work. I guess the thing is to not give up.
For more information on Michael Levine and his portfolio of work, please go here.
For my four-star review of Robert Carsen’s production with Michael Levine’s design, please click here.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is showing at the ENO including the 10th, 14th and 15th March.
Purchase tickets and find out more about the cast and creative team at the ENO website: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/a-midsummer-nights-dream