The Designer Touch
and opera production,
as explained to
'It began for me, purely by chance in America. I liked to draw, and my father drew a lot -- always very well. I love opera, too, and the two combined naturally with everything else I liked doing, so I went away and learned all about it and I soon became assistant to the Assistant for Cinq Ports Opera Workshop in Minneapolis. I was as amateurish as you can get, and found it quite delightful. It began with Cavalleria rusticana, and Down in the valley by Kurt Weill which I didn't like very much. It was all on a shoe string, and it was great fun. The next year I went on to Europe. First, to The Central School of London. Then, on to Rome where I attended the Senior Workshop for painting scenery. I found that physically very difficult -- painting on the floor with long brushes. I learnt all the tricks from the great painters there, but the pain in your wrists ... ugh! How to obtain the right effects -- doing it, and not reading it up in a book!
'This lasted for six months, until it was time for the Spoleto Festival where I designed for a one-act play in the little theatre underneath the Piazza, and helping generally including running on errands for my 1000 lire a day! Menotti directed La Bohème that year. It had an unknown singer, and everyone rehearsed on stage. We all became closely involved, both by the singing and the acting, and we five girls all left in tears! Then the singers cried as well -- they were so moved. It was all so beautiful, with Lila de Nobili from Paris in charge of the production. Everyone had so much to do, and the paint and water did not dry in time. But to talk and work beside her and watch her all the time was fascinating. Another year, we had La Traviata in the Visconti production. He was a quite a different personality to the older Gian Carlo Menotti.
'Next year, it was Holland and Simon Boccanegra. I look at my pictures now, and think, "Jesus, did I do that?" It seemed so pathetic, but at the time, OK. My big job was seven operas for Joan Sutherland in Australia. Her return as The Queen of the Night, to start. It was an experience. Howard Hartog (in charge at Ingpen & Williams, agents) rang me (this was in Rome) and invited me to lunch. " ... Mumble, mumble ... " Would I be interested ... in designing for Sutherland. I thought he was joking with me and almost shot myself in the arm ... the seven operas actually turned out to be two, but I brought out my paper and pencil and made some drawings which I took to London two days later. I was due to meet the Bonynges a couple of days on. I remembered clearly over lunch Hartog's garlic bread dribbling down his lips right down the front of his shirt. Anyway, he was very nice, taking me on to their house where everything was on display. There were people there I didn't know, and a lot of fast talk all round. I got the job. The opera titles kept changing -- everything from La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor to Semiramide. And Onegin, which she didn't sing. Elizabeth Harwood, who was lovely, came.
Copyright © 8 April 2006
Bill Newman, Edgware UK