Pelléas and Mélisande, 1993
I instantly said, "Yes," when Speight Jenkins called to ask me to design Pelléas and Mélisande. Then I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I had never designed for the theater. One of the allures certainly was the opportunity to work on a grand scale. Over the years my architectural installations had increased in size and now I had the chance to go much bigger. Working on this scale with the extraordinary lighting instruments available in the theater was irresistible.
Speight came over to my studio to read the libretto out loud, while we played the CD. When he finished, I was deep in the land of Allemonde and eager to tackle the opera's brutal, murky, erotic power. But first I had to unravel the mystery of Mélisande. Where did she come from? She marries Golaud, but why? She immediately captivates Golaud's little brother Pelléas, but does she love him? Did she lie to Golaud because she was frightened or was she just pathological? Is Mélisande a victim or a vixen? Was it Maeterlinck or Debussy or both who didn't want us to know?
The story allowed my imagination to go in many directions and the ambiguity of the opera gave me great freedom. I began to envision immense glass forms on a black glass stage. A giant glass flower - the garden. A red tube - Golaud's broken heart. A pile of yellow glass - Mélisande's hair that was "longer than she." I wanted to suggest the essence of each scene in a way that was far more visual, visceral, intuitive than conceptual.
I made drawings on black paper and then went into the hot shop where the glass blowers turned the images into sculptures. We made these objects to scale and placed them in maquettes of the stage. We then photographed them so we could study the options. Speight, Neil Peter Jampolis and Bob Schaub, the technical director, came to the Boathouse and together we spent two days making the decisions about which sets to realize. Naturally we didn't always agree. But as Speight told me in the beginning: "The opera is the most collaborative of all the arts."
See also: Statement by Speight Jenkins