Constructing the opera

POV builds brand new show from the ground up

Pacific Opera Victoria's lead scenic artist, Diana Nielsen shows off the set model for the upcoming opera, Vanessa, in front of the real set she helped create at POV's production facility

POV builds brand new show from the ground up



Tucked away in Victoria’s warehouse district, a staff of two dozen artists, carpenters and seamstresses are working tirelessly to set the mood for Pacific Opera Victoria’s upcoming production, Vanessa.

With 10,000 square feet of space, the opera shop production facility houses set carpentry, wardrobe, props and painting departments for the only Canadian opera company that custom- designs and builds its own sets.

Technical director Cameron Stewart says the production facility’s team is busy constructing an indoor/outdoor winter wonderland for Samuel Barber’s first opera set in a northern countryside.

“We do everything from scratch because the Royal Theatre has a smaller stage. The rental inventory available wouldn’t work,” Stewart says.

Set and costume designer Pam Johnson started planning almost a year ago. She worked hand-in-hand with director Glynis Leyshon to perfect a vision for the remote and neglected country manor where the opera takes place.

“Opera is a very luxurious art form. With the symphony, the stagehands, the chorus, it takes a lot of people to make it happen,” Stewart says.

Carpentry started building the huge fireplace and oversized doors that are the prominent features of the set about nine weeks ago. Wardrobe began stitching, and props started sourcing about seven weeks ago. The painters only got two weeks to make the finishing touches.

“Some of this is very low-tech,” Stewart says. “The scenic artists (painters) produced a 60-foot-wide by 30-foot-tall backdrop of snowy birch trees by hand that looks almost photoshoped.”

For four days, head scenic artist Paul Dishaw and lead scenic artist Diana Nielsen worked in the St. John the Divine Church hall to paint the birch trees.

They used makeshift tools like mops and three-foot-long bamboo sticks with a paintbrush taped to the end to extend their reach so they could paint standing up.

Sometimes they would have to get up on a ladder to make sure they got everything in perspective and captured the essence of the very cold northern sunrise.

They also use a special crackle finish to make the furniture created by the carpentry department look old and distressed.

“It’s better to use broad strokes than to be fussy with detail,” Dishaw says.

“The nearest person will be 80 feet away, and this needs to make sense to the people at the back of the house.”

The whole set is assembled in the warehouse then dismantled for transport to the theatre where it will be reassembled in time for the opening on April 28. The set will be reworked and used for Blue Bridge Theatre’s upcoming Blithe Spirit in June. M

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