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Tom & Frances
Design Verdi’s Nabucco
Photographs © 2006 by J R Compton. No Reproduction in Any Medium. All Rights Reserved.
THIS PAGE: Email DallasArtsRevue Links to other stories about Frances & Tom
DALLASARTSREVUE STORIES ABOUT TOM ORR & FRANCES BAGLEY
Essential Space I + Essential Space II Art in (DFW's) Terminal D
Vising Tom Orr and Frances Bagley In Their New Home Studio Modalities of the Visible
The White Rock Lake Water Theatre Drawn 2 Tom Orr Moiré
Dallas sculptors Frances Bagley & Tom Orr have designed an opera. It took them more than a year, and when I saw them at the dress rehearsal Wednesday November 8, 2006 they were exhausted. Excited certainly and brimming with information and enthusiasm, but seriously sleep-deprived.
That was their Big Week of premiere performances and public notice.
To celebrate this year's 50th Anniversary with something special, The Dallas Opera asked Frances and Tom to design sets and costumes for their debut performance of Verdi's Nabucco.
Unusually for an art project this big, the artists were not subjected to the routine of submitting bonafides with only a vague potential for approval eventually maybe. They are Dallas' premiere sculpture couple, used to dealing with large-scale projects.
But never anything like this one. The only "committee" involved were the people who make opera in Dallas — the directors, designers, actors, crew and everybody else at The Dallas Opera who use the sets and wear the costumes.
They weren't sure at first. "We were sort of dumbfounded, Frances said. "We admitted that wern't opera buffs. We didn't know anything about it." But the Opera said they wanted just such a new perspective. They agreed to do it, and "It was," Frances said, "the experience of a lifetime."
It was a challenge that could — and has — extended both artist's aesthetic and experience. I heard more than once that the couple had found a new career, which they could do well in. No doubt, but just then they were much less interested in a new career than getting get back to their old one.
What they have done is amazing. But the high may be temporary.
Their version of this opera will only be performed in Dallas five times, counting the dress rehearsal. Later, the sets and costumes ship off to Colorado. A few performances after that, no one sees this one again, except in photographs and video snippets, dreams and nightmares.
Who did what? I wondered. Frances responded, "Neither of us did anything completely on our own. It was a total collaboration with each other as well as with the stage director, lighting designer and most of all the technical director of the Dallas Opera, Drew Field."
Except for the photograph at the top and some minor remixing, the images on this page are in strict chronological order, so you are seeing the same order I saw at the Dress Rehearsal.
As this story unfolds and I remember more of the precedents in each artist's work as I watched. Invited to photograph the event, I sat in the third row, which was too near to see everybody's feet but was gloriously close to photo subtle and overt gestures and emotions in faces and hands, the sweat beading up on the conductor's face and other details.
When I see a concert I'm fidgety if I can't see everybody's fingers, so I know where every note comes from. Watching this production of Verdi's Nabucco from the third row, I could see almost everything that happened.
I heard every utterance and saw almost every gesture. Subtitles projected over the stage translated into English, but I rarely looked that far up. There was a vivid new universe unfolding a few feet away, and I wanted to capture it meaningfully and sharp.
As I told Tom at the Dress Rehearsal, I sometimes got caught up in the plot — shooting dramatic moments and purposeful poses — but spent most of my RAM showing costumes and sets, especially juxtaposed. It was gangbusters fun, and I believe my enthusiasm shows in these photographs.
It's fascinating to get to know someone's oeuvre over the decades, then see them work in an new field, wheere I could still recognize the individual styles and visual predilections I knew and appreciated. There's a lot of that going, and much of this opera's visual impact is the responsibility of the two Dallas artists.
Note the rectilinear simplicity of achromatic vertical lines in Tom's armor design. Nothing complicated about the look. We know who they are and what they're up to at our first glance. Those spears could easily run you through.
As each curtain rise unveiled a new set, I was amazed, recognizing some of that piece's predecessors in one or the other of the couple's body of work but still awed by their extension into the grandeur of so much physical space, color and light.
Each wardrobe debut elicited a similar response, though more subtly. Characters were contained and made more recognizable by the garb like the sets, simplified, even abstracted in ways not often encountered in the plastic visual arts. We knew not only who they were by their hues and shapes, but how important. Hot tones, expecially with gold accents, seriously outclassed blues, greens and grays.
This gold crown reminds me of Frances' early series of pointy stick abstracts, though it comprises an easily recognizable symbol. So simple, nailed together and painted monochromatically. Just being what it is yet beautiful. Nice to see that artifice serve another artform as effectively. Unlike any other crown we've seen, but we recognized its simple, emblematic forms immediately.
I could easily have moved so Graeme Jenkin's head was not at the bottom of a lot of my wider angle shots, but besides the sport of catching his hands up tempo in the air, I liked him as visual representation of the music I could translate no other way except the open mouths of the singers.
Made of strips of subtle greens and yellow cloth, this was my favorite costume. Soon as I saw it, I knew this red-haired lady was of some, but not great importance. Notice its supple splendor, how eminently wearable it must be. Yet how noticeable.
Its unconstrained weave is another reminder of Frances' intense interest and long exploration of loosely woven materials that look like baskets as vessels, not just for holding objects but for holding concepts as well. A container containing contain.
At the discussion after the Sunday Matinee, Frances told the crowd that "the sets were quite easy.The costumes were realy hard. We haven't done anything else for the last six months."
She also talked about their color coding for the costumes. I asked, citing specific colors, and by email Frances told me, "The color coding was very simple: Hot colors for the Babylonians and cool colors for the Hebrews. So green would be Hebrew and yellow would be Babylonian. The same is true for the lighting of a scene. Yes, brown was gold or red in the changing light."
I tentatively asked: I don't suppose you'd want to say how much they paid you? I didn't think so. I hope it was enough. I can't imagine how much enough would be.
Frances: "It is probably not cool to say how much they paid us, but if all it had been was some designs, it would have been ok, BUT it was so much more than just designing. We worked on it every day for last 6 months and at least twice — three days a week for a year prior. I think our
involvement was necessary for the success of it, but how much money it would take to do it again is a big question.
"It cost the Opera more in other ways also because they gave us so much support. They hired Drew Field, the technical director to work with us on the sets and the costume shop worked on this more than a usual show, partly because of our complex designs and partly because we needed guidance. The Opera and the stage director took a big risk working with artists who had no experience in stage design."
I also asked: You (or Tom) said earlier you weren't interested in doing this again, are you still not interested?
Frances answered carefully, "We can't say if we would do it again until the dust has settled and we remember what our lives used to be like."
Before the Dress Rehearsal, Tom told me to watch our for something amazing that Frances had done in the Hanging Garden scene. He was right. In an earlier draft of this story, I'd mentioned that it looked like one of Frances' early drawings. I remembered one at their joint show at the Irving Art Center some years ago.
Frances emailed back that the piece is "reminiscent of [her] early drawings. But it was some rubber tubing that Tom found, and we hung it up and photographed it."
This large-scale scribble is wonderfully three-dimensional without the line ever leaving the stratum. Multi-dimensional in high contrast black and white. I could see it was flat, but this emblem seems so remarkably 3-D it was difficult to convince my mind it was.
Later, when we saw the full performance from the left balcony, the vertical side panels blocked our view. Because it was set back, we could barely even see the flower's stem.
The balcony was a different experience. Downstairs was cooler, had more than enough leg room and provides a significantly more intimate theatrical experience. But dowstairs seats are much more expensive. Robbed of close-ups, it was more like watching on a small TV.
I nearly dozed off twice in the fifteen-degrees warmer balcony
I remember that Frances had called the piece that this exoskeletal dress reminds me of, "Vessel." Ignore for a moment, the prima donna in red and picture a free-standing sculpture comprising thick vertical lines meshed together in an twisting hourglass shape. (Or visit the original via this link.) Now put the lady back in— an elegant, regal, gown.
The bars, she emailed, "are like Tom's pattern installations. This is a famous scene/ song in the history of Opera which was adopted by the Italians in the mid 1800s as an anthem for their rebellion to opression." I have been fan of Tom's illusory installations of moiréd verticals almost as long as he's been employing them, and I've written about them extensively.
His usual set up — as above, in DFW's Terminal D and his own studio gallery — involves at least two layers of black, prison-bar like verticals with a low-contrast flat background of equi-distant vertical lines. When the viewer moves while experiencing these optical pieces, the vertical line objects overlap the grayish ground, setting up a retinal illusion, which confuses our sense of space and depth, an optical short-cut to what sculptors usually try to avoid.
Artists in the audience downstairs at the matinee report wagging heir heads to see the moiré. From the balacony, however, there was no hint. I wagged and saw none of it.
During the performance, I tried to read the — how can they be called sub titles, if they're on top of the stage? — projected text. The grandiose language and too-tight letter spacing made the text difficult to even want to read.
They'd sing and sing down there and no words would show, or there'd be silence below and lots of 17th Century gibberish blurring over the stage. Instead of translating the original libretto, let somebody who can write 21st Century prose and knows what's happening, explain simply like the caption below.
Frances emailed this caption. I didn't see a plot synopsis till I got a program at the matinee, but I still couldn't make sense of the story, although I watch hundreds of movies every year, and I can usually figure out even the worst of those. So the full story line for this arcane melodrama's still eludes, although after seeing it twice I've probably absorbed as much as I care to.
The depth of these cubby-hole set pieces looked great downstairs up close. From the balcony, however, much of the action inside them got lost, although the dulled reflective lining alerted us to comiings and goings.
Like the smaller, cloaked animal sculptures Frances showed at The MAC during her Essential Space show and later when the couple opened their own studio gallery, this gold beast of fertility does not represent any mammal we can name.
Tom told me they'd taken pains not to represent any specific historic era, but there is the sensation of history about the costumes.
Giuseppe Verdi originally set his opera in Babylon (now about 50 miles south of Bagdad in Iraq), but this production occurs in ubiquitous time — a sort of ancient future. The sets especially could be any when.
The secret is Tom and Frances are not talking to the same person. I like watching this couple who has been working together for so many years. Usually, whoever is not talking, hangs back, gives the other time and space to do what needs doing.
Frances and the stage director discuss something that goes on somebody's head that seemed either not to work or to work not well enough, or something, after Dress Rehearsal.
Tom told me about the amazing experience of engaging a fellow human being in conversation backstage, then seeing them go out on stage and sing like ... like opera singers. Although he admitted that, in opera, everyone has a little diva in them nearly all the time. I think that probably happens a lot in art, too.