Friday, August 23, 2013

RETURNING TO THE RING: Michael Moore, Scenic Studios Manager

Michael Moore, Seattle Opera’s Scenic Studios Manager, has been making Seattle Opera’s sets come true for the past 34 years. We talked about the challenges of the current Ring set, the dragon (of course!), and some of his favorite Ring memories.

This production—so often called the “green” Ring—is known for its beautiful naturalistic scenery. What’s most challenging about representing nature in a set?
Nature has had millions to billions of years of opportunity to make things tricky and complex and pays no attention to time or budget for that matter. We have to evolve our scenery in weeks or months at best.

It is also difficult to make things chaotic. With an organic shape or form, it’s difficult to avoid obvious repeating patterns. Some of the art is being able to step back and assess what you’re doing.

What are the trees made of in the ridge terrain set?
If you’ve ever tried to lift up a tree, you know they’re pretty heavy, and our set, of course, has to be lightweight and portable. People like you and me have to be able to pick them up and move them into and out of a truck and get them to and from the stage. So the question was: how to make a forest that’s featherweight but that looks very convincing. In this case, we used the aircraft industry from the ’20s and ’30s as a model: we stretched Dacron fabric (used to cover the wings of antique airplanes) over a super lightweight aluminum frame. Then we apply Vacuform plastic bark and aluminum twigs. In the end, the trees are little more than paint.

The forest of Das Rheingold's "Ridge Terrain" set
Elise Bakketun photo

Can you give an example of how a design idea evolves—from designer to scenic studio to stage?
You have to start with a piece of paper and sketch up how you’re going to do it, which goes back to the question of what does the director want to do? What does he have in mind? Can you storyboard out the action? Just about any of these challenges start with a plan of action from the point of view of the stage director. The designer then provides an illustration of what it might look like, but ultimately, what the set has to do and physically be comes across my desk out here. So I find out everything I can and stay awake several nights. The ideas don’t come to me at two o’clock in the afternoon; it’s more like 3 a.m.

Do you keep a notebook by your bed?
I keep a digital recorder. When I’m deep into a project, I can roll over, punch the button, and in the middle of the night jot down the idea I’ve been dreaming about and then I can go back to sleep. That’s a regular occurrence in my life. I guess you could say I have a dream job.

Brünnhilde's ledge in Götterdämmerung
Elise Bakketun photo

And it’s always something new.
Virtually everything we’ve built is a prototype. The designer brings the design to us—this is something that nobody has asked us to design before—and we need to get it done on time on budget and trot it out on the stage and lift up the curtain before three thousand people, hoping with our fingers crossed that it works the first time.

We can’t talk about the Ring set without talking about the dragon! How many dragons have you made for Seattle Opera?
There was the Ring from the ’70s, which was the John Naccarato design we first produced. Then the Bob Israel dragons: the first one was larger than the building so all we saw was a giant claw. There were a couple other versions—and quite different versions—in the course of that show. Then we’ve done dragons for other companies. So our current dragon is at least the seventh dragon that I’ve had a substantial hand in.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) consoles the dying Fafner
Elise Bakketun photo

For photos of the new dragon Michael Moore and the Seattle Opera Scenic Studios created for our neighbors at the Experience Music Project, CLICK HERE.

Where is the RING set stored?
When it’s not at the opera house, it joins the rest of our scenic inventory of 30 or so operas that we store in the warehouse down in Kent Valley. All of those shows except for the Ring are rented out to other opera companies. So they’re really all over the world.

What kind of work do you need to do to get the Ring set ready again?
Needless to say, there’s some wear and tear that occurs to all these things, so at the end of the run, it goes back into the warehouse, and we work the repair into our schedule. Take the dragon, for instance. Siegfried does a little battle with the tail of Fafner when he comes across it in the cave, and the dragon can’t really fight back. He can wiggle the tail a little bit, but he suffers every blow, and when it’s time to put him back on the stage, it’s time to patch up his tail. So over the last couple of months we brought the tail out here and fit it around other projects.

What is everyone working on now?
Right now everything is on the stage. We wrapped up our work on the Ring with the tail of the dragon about two weeks ago.

Siegfried and the Rhine Daughters on the "Gorge" set
Elise Bakketun photo

How long did it take originally to build this Ring set?
Before the curtain hit the deck on the Bob Israel Ring for the last time in 1995, I think Speight had already spoken with Tom Lynch as a designer and Stephen Wadsworth and started that ball rolling. There were a couple years spent in the conceptual phase, and then we spent about two years in the shop.

How many trucks does it take to load in the Ring set?
About 60.

Do you have a favorite scene?
Of course I have a particular fondness for the dragon. In fact any number of friends have come up over the years and said, “You know that Fafner is so wonderful. Couldn’t he win just once?”

Do you have any favorite memories from the Ring?
One of my favorite moments that perhaps the audience could appreciate was during the Bob Israel Ring. Off stage left is a room that we call the prop room, and that’s where Wotan’s spear lives and Nothung and all the stuff that gets chopped in half. One day someone brought in a box of kazoos, and one of the stage hands picked one up and played one of the motifs. Somebody said, “I know what that is! They’re forging Nothung.” Then somebody grabbed another kazoo and started playing another motif. This snowballed, and pretty soon we had a group of about 14 stagehands playing Wagnerian themes doing name that tune on the kazoo! It was a priceless moment.


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