Speight Jenkins
Pelléas and Mélisande

As though it were a normal request of an opera director to a glass artist, in the summer of 1991, I called Dale Chihuly and said, "I would like you to design the sets for Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande. I think your material and sensibilities are exactly right. Are you interested?" Chihuly said, "Yes. Why don't you come over and see me?" Armed with a CD of Pelléas and several books, I went.

At the Boathouse, Chihuly's studio on Lake Union, I was taken on a tour by the irrepressible artist and was dumbfounded. I had never in my life imagined that one could do with glass what he has done. By the time we wound our way up the spiral metal stairway in his living quarters, I was convinced that only Dale Chihuly could design our Pelléas.

I began to talk to him about the opera, to spin the story and to tell of Debussy and Maeterlinck. Then we listened to the Tower Scene, the end of the scene in the Abyss and the whole next scene. He was so fascinated that we went on to a bit of the hair-pulling scene and some of the final encounter of the lovers. That was enough. Chihuly was hooked.

My enthusiasm for Chihuly as set designer, despite his complete inexperience in the theater, came directly from my feelings about the drama and music of Pelléas and Mélisande. It had immediately flashed in my mind when Jim Bailey, the Opera's late marketing director, and I discussed producing Debussy's impressionistic opera that nothing would be better than glass for the sets.

Chihuly's preeminence in glass is a given; he has made Seattle an internationally known center for the glass arts. With this fame and his legendary inventiveness, I believed no one could better Pelléas and Mélisande. Chihuly could realize Debussy's own concept of an ideal opera: two associated dreams. No place, nor time.

Pelléas and Mélisande is a bit like an onion - peeling away one layer only reveals the multitude of layers underneath. During the course of his life, Debussy supplied reasons as to why. The composer believed that the dream-like atmosphere of Pelléas was far closer to real life than the romantic realism of the operas of his contemporaries. He said, "In Pelléas (the original play by Maurice Maeterlinck), there is evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and the orchestral decor." He loved the symbolist quality of Maeterlinck and felt that he could create the complexity of real people with this text.

Through the years audience reaction to Pelléas has not equaled musicians' and critics' evaluation. The premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on April 30, 1902, was moderately successful though the press was divided and certain conservative elements of the public were outraged. Vincent d'Indy, an important composer of the time, wrote probably the most perceptive review. He stated that the crux to understanding the opera was to "find in Pelléas not what one had come to look for, but what the composer had intended to put in it."

Even though the opera was given in Paris every season until the beginning of World War II and made its way to every major opera house in the world, its unrelieved subtlety has proved difficult for many in its audience. Pelléas and Mélisande is allusive, illusive and elusive. The text and music allude to countless unspoken ideas and feelings. We must intuit Mélisande's feelings from her words and what the music tells us she is thinking. The illusive quality of the work can also be seen in Mélisande: Does she love Pelléas or not? Finally the elusive point can be made in the reasons behind her lying. Why not tell Golaud that she lost the ring in the well?

In this opera the audience must know precisely what the characters are saying. They may not tell you what they are thinking or feeling, but one must know their words for the music and their actions to communicate their true feelings. Having loved Pelléas since my first exposure to it at the Metropolitan in 1960, I felt that part of the problem of making Pelléas accessible to the public could be corrected by supratitles.

I also believed that the dreamy sets, which have characterized most Pelléas productions of my lifetime, reinforce a surface reading of the music. They are, in short, too much of a good thing. The public sees a visual spectacle so close to what they are hearing that they become bored. It seemed to me that the very abstract qualities of glass combined with Chihuly's remarkable, indeed unique eye for color would give us what we wanted visually.

So we were going to do a glass Pelléas. What on earth did that mean? Pieces of glass on stage? Stagehands in terror lest a wrong move destroy an art object, not just a theatrical prop? Chihuly was concerned about how we could realize his sculptural visions. I explained that we had extraordinarily gifted people who could create virtually any design at the appropriate scale. Robert Schaub, Seattle Opera's technical director, would be responsible for recreating Chihuly's designs for the stage. Chihuly already knew that one of his former students, Margie Jervis, was our talented chief scenic painter. Chihuly wanted to know more about stage lighting so we rented Intiman Theater and then the high school auditorium at Shoreline to show him the possibilities.

Working with Chihuly at every step was the director, Neil Peter Jampolis, who has won Tonys and Emmys for a host of lighting and set designs. He has been acclaimed for a great many opera sets and with Fidelio in Seattle in 1991 has had a distinguished beginning as a director. Jampolis had seen Chihuly's one-man show at the Seattle Art Museum in the summer of 1992 and had loved Chihuly's idea for the opera's Forest Scene - a shiny, apparently transparent green plastic material shaped into columns.

When Chihuly and Jampolis met, they went over Chihuly's rough sketches and Jampolis explained his ideas for the show. Through their conversations it became clear that Chihuly's design should be abstract, capturing a moment of feeling or perhaps conveying the whole spirit of the scene in one visual creation that would be glass or glass-like. Like the music the sets should be evocative and symbolist, not literal or realistic. Jampolis believes that the crucial moment of mutual understanding came after a spaghetti dinner in the Boathouse when the two of them were washing the dishes. He was suddenly able to communicate clearly to Chihuly what his role should be: Rather than turn himself into a stage designer, Chihuly should look within his own artistic sensibility to find a visual equivalent for each of the scenes. The Opera's duty would be to execute those ideas. At the time of this writing, all the contracts are let and construction is moving forward. Now we can only hope that it will bring forth what we envision. On March 13th we hope that we will lead you to a magical Allemonde, a dramatic and aural experience worthy of Debussy and a visual experience worthy of that master of glass, Dale Chihuly.

Speight Jenkins

See also:
Statement by Dale Chihuly