Monday, February 18, 2019

The (R)evolutionary design of Vita Tzykun

Meet Victoria “Vita” Tzykun (pronounced tsee-‘koon), Set Designer for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Born in Ukraine, raised in Israel, and now based in New York City, Tzykun has designed sets, costumes, and projections for companies such as The Bolshoi Theater (Russia), Norwegian Opera, Santa Fe Opera, LA Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Wolf Trap Opera, and many other companies and festivals. She made her Seattle Opera debut in 2015 as Costume Designer for Seattle Opera's Semele. Numerous film and TV credits include art direction for Lady Gaga’s ABC Thanksgiving Special, plus production design for several award-winning films and commercials. Tzykun is a founding member of GLMMR - an NYC-based interdisciplinary art collective that fuses the worlds of fine art, audiovisual technology, and live performance. Tzykun holds an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was awarded a full scholarship, and a BFA (Magna Cum Laude) from Tel-Aviv University.

In your work, you wear many hats, from designing costumes (like your work in Semele) to creating sets for Steve Jobs. Often you occupy the title of "Production Designer." Can you explain what a production designer does? 
A production designer conceives the look and feel of the experience that an audience member interfaces with, be it an opera, a TV show, a rock concert, or a virtual reality event.

You've described The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs as the most technologically advanced opera you've ever designed. What new challenges did you find as an artist, and were some of the most joyous moments for you in creating the world of Steve Jobs?
One of the most challenging aspects of conceiving a visual environment for this production was identifying what might be technologically exciting for audience members to see four years down the line. (We started designing this opera in 2016 and it’s going to San Francisco Opera in 2020). After all, it’s an opera about Steve Jobs, arguably one of the most important visionaries and tech giants in the world. Two dimensional painted flats wouldn’t do here. It was clear from the beginning that the visual world of this opera had to deliver a sense of technological wonder.

One of the most joyous moments in this process was when one of our collaborators, Ben Pearcy of “59 Productions” brought up the idea of using BlackTrax, a technology that allows for real-time tracking of the sets. That’s exactly the kind of solution I was looking for, and it allows for video projections to stay “glued” to the set units at all times.

Set design by Vita Tzykun. Ken Howard photo
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about opera in your view?
In the US, I feel like opera is often treated like a museum relic that is precious and not to be modified. New takes on classical repertoire, and new operas, are too frequently viewed with suspicion.

While classic repertoire is very important, the art form must evolve in order to survive. And it is indeed evolving. We are currently in a midst of a contemporary opera renaissance in America. I have been fortunate to work as production designer for many operatic world-premieres over the past eight years, and these pieces are relevant, gripping, and versatile. The subjects of these operas speak to modern audiences—including audiences new to opera—and they're presented in ways that people can easily understand and relate to.

In many ways, opera is no different than theater and dance, both of which are miles ahead of opera in terms of modernizing older performance practices. Think about the vast amount of modern dance and modern theater that has been created throughout the 20th, and the beginning of the 21st centuries. Opera has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s on it’s way, and it's exciting to watch.

In Seattle, many people are huge fans of Semele (including the amazing Pasithea and Somnus costumes that you created!). What was the most fun part about working on that show?

Oh, that’s great to hear! I love that production and am very proud of it, particularly the collaboration between several Seattle Opera departments. In order to create Somnus' 15-foot-long cape that was covered with glowing constellations, we worked with the lighting department. And and to create Pasithea’s corseted Venus-like shell, we needed the props department. The folks who work in lighting and props rarely visit the costume shop, but that time around, we had to work closely, and the results turned out to be magic!

What was your overall strategy for creating a sense of wonder in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?
The strategy was to create a scenic world that would shift physically and digitally at the exact same time, while being sound-reactive. In close collaboration with video and lighting designers, Ben Pearcy and Japhy Weideman, we have achieved just that.

What was it like working with Lady Gaga outside of the opera world?
Everything moves much faster in the Pop/Rock music and TV worlds, but I’ve production-designed for film quite a bit before shifting my main focus to designing for opera over the past few years, so I was prepared for that.

Lady Gaga is a very hard-working, professional, and collaborative artist, and her work ethics and methods were inspiring to watch. She was very involved in the design process, spearheading the visual concepts for her shows.

Vita Tzykun provided Art Direction for Lady Gaga's ABC Thanksgiving Special. 
In (R)evolution, you worked with lighting professionals to line the stage with ribbons of programmable “neon flex” lights that change colors, animate, and pulsate according to the beat of the music. This effect is used to reflect Jobs’ inner thoughts at his most creative moments. Can you describe a moment or two in the show where you feel like the lighting, the storytelling, etc. just comes together in an amazing way?
One of our main objectives was to blend the boundaries between scenery, lighting, and video. Often times, when the scenery moves from side-to-side, but the video projected on it moves from front to back, the audience can’t quite grasp how exactly items are moving. In this show, it’s hard to tell what is video and what is lighting. And when both lighting and video pulsate to the beat of the electronic track, it further promotes that sense of oneness. One example is the end of Steve’s Product Launch, his first big aria in the opera when he unveils the first iPhone. At the end of it, you can hear an electronic sound that reminds us of powering down, Steve doubles over, exhausted, scenic monoliths on stage start changing their configuration, as lighting and video pulsate like his heart beat. If in the beginning he controls the “matrix” on stage, then towards the end, it’s evident that the “matrix” controls him.

The visuals you created for this show help the audience get inside Steve’s head. Based on what you’ve learned through working on this opera, what do people not know about Steve Jobs?

Many might not know that Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist and that for most of his life he had a spiritual teacher, Kōbun Chino Otogawa. The juxtaposition of a practicing Buddhist becoming one of the wealthiest people on the planet and inventing a device that everyone craves and are addicted to is quite something. But that’s one of the most interesting aspects of Steve Jobsjust how full of contradictions he was. 

Set design for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Vita Tzykun. 

Why is The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs an important work in the operatic canon? 
Because it touches on subjects that are relevant to audiences today, and to audiences many years down the line. The opera fuses acoustic and electronic elements beautifully. New and traditional collide to create a unique soundscape that is still quite unusual in large-scale opera.

You were born in Ukraine, but raised in Israel and lived there during the first Gulf War. What was your experience with the arts growing up?

The arts are a common denominator. In the USSR, Israel, the US, Europe, Asia everywhere I've lived, no matter the language, people can share the language of visual art and music. The arts connect us to each other.  

During the Gulf War, while we were sitting in a sealed room with our faces covered in gas masks fearing a chemical attack, my father, who is a visual artist and caricaturist, worked on drawing political caricatures for the Israeli newspapers. It was a sight I will never forget: him drawing with his right hand, while wearing a gas mask, and holding a flash light in his left hand. He would then drive to deliver the caricatures to the newspapers, with my grandfather who was a WWII veteran who didn’t fear the Gulf War as much as we did. Periodically, they had to stop the car on the side of the road, then lay down next to it when they heard air-raid sirens. When the sirens stopped, the two of them got back into the car and kept driving. The show must go on. Art has to be created, delivered, published, and absorbed, and no wars can stop that.

Seattle Opera's Semele (2015) photo by Elise Bakketun 
A reoccurring criticism of our increasingly digital, high-tech world is that we are losing connection to our humanity. And yet, you are someone who harnesses technology in your artistic work. Do you think that technology can help us in fact, connect to our humanity?
Technology is just a set of tools. It can be helpful, just as much as it can be destructive. It’s up to us what we do with it.

Projectors, sewing machines, lighting, cameras, are all “technology,” so in that sense, even the simplest show uses a lot of technological support. I look at technological advancements as an opportunity for richer storytelling, but every piece I design requires different levels of technological tools.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23-March 23, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera on our Spotlight Guide.