Thursday 1 April 2010

Runnicles to pioneer innovative new production technique at Deutsche Oper

Before you take the following too seriously, please take a look at the date!

I'm very excited to have received another e-mail from Deutsche Oper this morning allowing me to reveal a portion of my recent interview with Donald Runnicles that had been under embargo.

Listeners and readers will remember that the maestro discussed the challenges involved in moving to a repertoire house and in particular in having to switch very quickly from one production to another. His solution, and one which will be trialed in his first new production for the house, Berlioz's Les Troyens, premiering in December, is the use of inflatable sets.

Edinburgh readers may feel something familiar here, doubtless recalling productions by The Strolling Theatricals, whose stagings of Shakespeare on bouncy castles have garnered much media attention at recent Edinburgh Fringe festivals. Indeed, Runnicles admits this was his inspiration:

When I was here last August for the festival, I saw that in the programme and since I had a few hours free I just couldn't resist. While sitting there watching Macbeth bounce up and down as he wondered whether he actually saw a dagger before him, the idea just came to me. We had anyway been debating how we might accomplish all the elaborate sets Les Troyens requires.

Readers may instantly wonder if we're quite ready to see the likes of Don Giovanni, Wotan or Leonora bouncing around the stage as they try to sing.

Runnicles laughs:

Clearly not. We did do a test, and you just can't project the voice properly. But that was never really the idea. The point was always about getting the rest of the set in and out quickly.

The stage, it seems, will remain solid. And there are other benefits too. It should, it is hoped, require a smaller crew, and thus reduce costs, a major boon in these days of constrained arts funding. Even better, it will be much cheaper to ship a set around to world so that foreign opera companies can also stage the production.

The approach hasn't been without problems, and there have been many discussions with New Zealand based company Fabric Structure Systems along the way (they are world leaders in this field having previously provided an all inflatable Falstaff set). One problem that springs instantly to mind is that of the noise of the air pumps - will that be audible over the orchestra and singers? Runnicles admits:

That was our biggest concern. Obviously if it's going to make any more noise than, say, the air conditioning units, then that's unacceptable. Certainly our first tests with the pumps in the wings failed for that very reason. However, we've developed an innovative solution whereby the pumps are housed in an acoustically isolated out-building and the air is then piped in. The result should be practically inaudible.

I wonder if these giant inflatable structures will have a detrimental effect on the acoustic. Again Runnicles thinks not:

We've engaged Larry Kierkegaard, one of the top experts in the field [editor's note: he assisted on the successful refurbishment of the Festival Hall recently] and have every confidence this will not be the case.

So, everyone is happy? Well, not quite. The union representing the stagehands is not impressed. Spokesman Hans Olo commented:

We find this very appalling. It seems clear an attempt to put hardworking Germans out of a job during difficult economic times.

Despite the insistence of Deutsche Oper officials that any change will be gradual, and conventional productions will remain in the repertoire for many years to come, not to mention the hope that any job loss will be confined to natural wastage, Olo remains insistent:

We have entered into talks with management but industrial action cannot be ruled out. We will disrupt the imminent performances of the prestigious Ring cycle if we must.

Where's Runnicles certainly hopes it does not come to that, but it would not be utterly without precedent.

The full press release should appear on the Deutsche Oper website later today and we will update this article with a link then. We will also be watching any further developments closely. I am currently re-editing the interview to reinsert the missing section, it will be available here shortly.

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