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May 8, 2008

Clothing the set: 100 yards of fabric makes the backdrop for Mozart’s comic opera

School of Drama graduate student Evan Ritter spent portions of last summer creating an opera set out of 100 yards of fabric. The dark blue cloth forms a backdrop that plays a key role in the upcoming production of La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend Gardener), slated for May 14, 16 and 18 in Meany Theater.

“The opera takes place in the garden of a villa in an imaginary place in Italy,” Ritter said. “Most of the action is in the garden, but sometimes it’s in the house, and then ultimately the characters get lost in a forest and things become surreal. So we wanted to find a way that we could represent everything simply rather than having to do a completely different set for each act.”

Ritter designed a simple three-walled house with some “beautiful details,” as specified in the story. There is a lawn to represent the garden. “Then behind this sits a sky, and that’s what the backdrop is for,” Ritter said.

There was so much fabric needed for this backdrop that Ritter had to get permission to work in the space where the Gould Hall coffee shop — closed in the summer — usually is.

“When the characters go to the forest,” Ritter explained, “the house is going to be hoisted and flamboyantly perched up in the air above everyone’s heads. Then the blue is going to transform so that the moon will come out.”

That latter illusion will be accomplished in a low-tech way. The blue cloth will be placed in front of a standard white backdrop, and cutouts in the fabric will reveal the moon at various degrees of fullness. The same effect could have been achieved with a projector, but Ritter was adamant about using technology that was available at the time of Mozart, who wrote the opera.

La Finta Giardiniera is, in fact, one of Mozart’s earliest operas, composed when he was just 18. It has been described as “a surreal romp through a landscape of mistaken identity, unbridled passion, and romantic confusion.”

“The characters are very much a Midsummer Night’s Dream group of young people — self-involved and searching for love in all the wrong places!” said director Claudia Zahn.

Ritter, who is actually concentrating on lighting design in his graduate program, met Zahn last year when he was lighting designer for the opera Dido and Aeneas. The two had good rapport, and together came up with the concept for the current opera design. Ritter then made a pitch to his department to be the set designer.

He has done both lighting and set design in his past jobs before graduate school, primarily with the Los Angeles opera and with a dance company that first builds a set and then builds choreography around it.

“What I’m really interested in is scenography — all the scenic elements on stage and how to make that a language,” Ritter said. “I’m doing the best I can to find opportunities to work like that because usually, things are broken down into specialties.”

La Finta Giardiniera is a joint production of the School of Music and the School of Drama. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on May 14 and 16 and 3 p.m. on May 18. Tickets are $25, $15 for students and seniors, and are available at the UW Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880 or online at www.meany.org.  

The production will be the UW swan song for Zahn, who is leaving the University after 10 years as director of the UW Opera Program.