Design for the Stage: First Steps

By Darwin Reid Payne | Go to book overview

While this way of seeing is not a formalized method or system, it does bear a more detailed examination. Therefore, we will now take another example to show in more detail how this concept works. And since this method of approaching the design is based on the assumption that reconstruction of the larger picture can be helpful to the designer in several ways, not merely as literal documentation alone, let us give this activity a name. Since it is predicated on seeing the environment from a distant perspective and then progressively moving in, let us call this activity an "overview."


§21 The Overview: Madame Butterfly

Although it is not necessary in every work to know in precise detail the complete lay of the land surrounding the locale being represented, in some instances it is not time wasted to consider the larger area of which the specific place (that which shows in the setting on the stage) is a smaller part. The overview is, in operation, much like a camera panning from a great height and distance down and into the actual spot where the action is to take place.

As an illustration of this process let us examine the opera Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. Puccini himself had a fairly keen sense of direction and is, in this opera in particular, much more consistent and logical in designation of locations than most opera composers. Only once in the text, however, does a character (the American counsel Sharpless) refer directly to key landmarks. But since this one reference is quite specific and detailed, it makes it necessary for anyone involved in making decisions concerning the design of the setting to make clear judgments as to these locations. He must consider not only Butterfly's house in relation to its immediate environment, but also its relationship to the nearby city of Nagasaki, the points of the compass (since times of day complete with setting and rising suns are integral parts of the opera's action and development), the location of the harbor where important events take place although not seen by the audience, and to the open sea which Butterfly watches for the better part of three years. The overview is a means by which some of these decisions can be realized. At this stage of planning a production it is important that both designer and director work very closely. Of course, it should be understood that no amount of research would turn up the exact place Puccini had in mind since this work was modeled not on a real occurrence but on another stage work, Madame Butterfly, by John Luther Long and

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