Always at the Edges

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Long Beach Opera has firmly established its reputation for intelligent iconoclasm, and that's one reason why multidisciplinary artists such as designer Marsha Ginsberg feel at home with the maverick company. A photographer and installation artist, she has been working in theater and opera for a decade now, and she thinks of her work in both the visual and performing arts as of a piece.

"I consider my set designs to be a form of artwork," says the New York-based Ginsberg, dressed in stylishly casual blacks and seated in a courtyard next to the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, where her production of Richard Strauss' "Elektra" will be seen today and Saturday.

"My work in theater begins from the specificity of the architecture of the stage space. There is a link between my photographic work and my stage work in its attention to the composition within the frame. In both mediums, I compose to the extreme edges of the frame."

Ginsberg made her Long Beach debut with a 1999 production of the Bartok opera "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" that Times music critic Mark Swed described as "astonishingly hip, interesting and original ... with sets and video that might have walked out of this year's Venice Biennale."

The current "Elektra" is directed by Ginsberg's "Bluebeard" collaborator, Roy Rallo, and conducted by Andreas Mitisek. It's no accident that Ginsberg and Rallo have reteamed for this outing.

"My sets use the space pretty aggressively, so I have to work with a director who is interested in that," says Ginsberg. "One of the things I think about is how directors like to move people around, and most of the directors I work with tend to move actors around in a nonrealistic way."

Yet Ginsberg and Rallo's shared aesthetics go beyond a nonrealistic use of space. "One of my interests is in the power of certain objects and spaces to call up emotions and memories by their reference to familiar experiences," explains Rallo, who was first struck by Ginsberg's work thanks to photographs of an installation in which she created a burned room. "I recognized a common desire to use texture and space in a very meticulous way to key into this referential language."

In "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," for example, Ginsberg created an abstracted version of a decrepit apartment constructed from shards of other dwellings. "The stairway and windows she found in an upstate New York salvage yard and we had them shipped out," recalls Long Beach Opera general director Michael Milenski. "The detail that Marsha incorporated into the 'Bluebeard' set was difficult [to achieve]. But I realized that [it] is part of the design concept, and with Marsha the concept is huge and deep."

"I favor the use of real materials and objects on stage, rather than their theatrical imitation," Ginsberg explains. "I like the way these found materials resonate. They have an aura, a history, and their use and meaning is transplanted once in place on stage."

Like Long Beach Opera, Ginsberg and Rallo are deliberately unconventional. "One of the things that we were both interested in about 'Bluebeard's Castle' was taking a piece that's traditionally epic and bringing the characters down to earth," says Ginsberg. "That was a starting point for 'Elektra' too."

Strauss' 1909 one-act opera, with libretto by the poet-playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is based on Sophocles' tragedy--which retells the story of the House of Atreus, in which the Greek King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Klytamnestra, and her lover. The demanding title role, sung by Susan Marie Pierson, portrays Elektra living with her guilty mother in the family home, plotting vengeance against her mother. She tries to enlist her sister as an accomplice, but it is not until her brother Orestes (John Packard) finally returns home that he and Elektra in turn murder Klytamnestra and her lover. Ultimately, however, Elektra does not survive her own vengeance.

It's a family drama, but not in the usual prime-time sense. Director Rallo's interpretation owes much to Freud.

"I believe that 'Elektra' is about that terrifying moment in a child's life when it realizes it is not the center of the universe, and that its parents' lives are separate from its own," says Rallo. "This is a moment that is fraught with feelings of distrust, anxiety, fear and loneliness, which each of us work through in a journey toward our own autonomy. 'Elektra' is about one person's rather horrifying journey."

To capture the magnitude of emotions involved, directors and designers typically resort to the abstract, says Ginsberg, or the fake classical. Which gave Rallo and Ginsberg something to avoid.

"He said it would be a kick to do it on an 'I Love Lucy' set or something like that," explains Ginsberg. "So we decided that we were going to make it into a house--the house of Atreus literally. Then it was really just figuring out what type of house it would be and from what period."

They looked at films set in various periods, including the 1950s and 1970s, and also studied past American experiments in home design. "We liked the idea of placing 'Elektra' in an environment that was about the idealism of living this perfect, wonderful life and very much centered around the nuclear family."

Ultimately, Ginsberg and Rallo settled on a domestic interior from the epoch of their childhood, the '70s. Indeed, their mutual interest in such domestic ideals may have something to do with the fact that Ginsberg and Rallo are in their 30s, and the beneficiaries of postwar America's suburban boom.

Ginsberg, 38, grew up in Long Island, in a home where musical culture was part of the family fabric. "My parents would always go to the opera and the symphony, and classical music was what was on the radio," she explains. "My mother played the piano, I played the violin, and my sister growing up was singing opera and now she works as a cantor."

As an undergraduate, Ginsberg studied art at Cooper Union in New York. After Cooper Union, she began showing with the collective known as Group Material. "I did a project with them in the New York City subways and I showed at a place called Franklin Furnace, which was known at the time for doing a lot of performance work," she explains, indicating one of the first places where her interest in performance was piqued.

Ginsberg then spent a year in an independent program affiliated with the Whitney Museum of Art, concentrating on installation art. Her work included large-scale site-specific works, as well as smaller, photo-text pieces, and even a bit of performance, although she soon realized that stage fright made the latter not her true metier.

During this time, she was seeing stage productions by such avant-garde theater artists as Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman. She was attracted by the abstract visualizations and the spectacle of postmodern theater. "That stuff felt very comfortable to me, but other theater felt very foreign, like it was very removed from anything that my friends or I were doing," Ginsberg says.

She then moved to London for two years, and it was there that Ginsberg's interests in theater and opera really began to bloom.

"I had not ever thought of any substantial interest in opera, but at that time David Poutney was running the English National Opera and doing these productions that were conceptually oriented," she recalls, mentioning in particular stagings of "Hansel and Gretel" and "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." "There were really gorgeous visually, but it was always about setting the pieces in a different context, with a very big visual idea."

Working with friends, Ginsberg began designing in some of London's small theaters. "My initial sense was that since I had this visual background, I would work as a set designer to make money and that I would direct these little extravaganzas," she says.

Soon enough, she felt the need for more formal training in theater design. "I just felt like I had to go to graduate school," says Ginsberg, "so I made the decision to come back to New York and go to NYU."

Following her 1990 graduation from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Ginsberg began working in New York theater, particularly with director Moises Kaufman. Their first production together was a staging of Franz Xaver Kroetz's "The Nest."

At the same time, a Theatre Communications Group early-career grant enabled her to form an apprentice relationship with L.A.-based Robert Israel, one of the world's preeminent stage designers. He has created sets and costumes for Philip Glass operas at the Metropolitan in New York and elsewhere, for Poutney in England, and, locally, for a new production of "Don Giovanni," the premiere of "Florencia en al Amazonas" and more. His designs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, among others.

With Israel, Ginsberg worked on productions at Glimmerglass Opera in New York state, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., the Met and elsewhere. The experience was pivotal, and she continues to consider Israel an important mentor. She recently assisted him on "Fidelio" at the Met and "Aida" at the Munich Opera.

Indeed, it was her work with Israel that first brought Ginsberg to L.A. She spent five years living here, assisting Israel and teaching at UCLA, although it was not until she'd moved back to New York that she made her debut with Long Beach Opera, with the 1999 "Bluebeard's Castle."

"Working with Marsha is sort of like singing in English," says Milenski. "The setting, like the language, is as much for the performers as it is for the audience. The process of creating a production at LBO is both joyful and terrifying, and with a Marsha production we get plenty of both--the joy of discovering the beauty of the concept and the terrifying pressure of the time and resources to realize it."

As with "Elektra," for "Bluebeard's Castle" Ginsberg and Rallo wanted a fresh approach.

"We started by talking about the way 'Bluebeard's Castle' is usually done," she recalls. "We both had seen this production at the Metropolitan Opera in the early '90s where there are these doors that open very dramatically, and we both found it kind of laughable because it was so predictable."

The challenge is that the opera's story--of a serial wife-killer whose newest bride unlocks bloody chamber after chamber until she discovers her unfortunate predecessors--is intimately connected to the sets. "The opera's very programmatic: Door 1 this happens, Door 2 that happens," says Ginsberg. "So we'd always talked about how we could deal with these doors and not make it like you're waiting and you visually see where the next one is."

The designer found the seed for her solution in Architectural Digest's annual "before and after" issue. "I really loved all the 'before' pictures," she says. "I showed those to Roy and that became the basis of the 'Bluebeard's Castle.' "

In particular, Ginsberg was fascinated by the way the 'before' pictures revealed the tracings of the past. "You see how people lived in the house," she says. "For instance, where there had been a photograph or a picture hanging on the wall, when you take it off, you see what I call ghosts of the objects. Or what really became central to the set of 'Bluebeard'--when they would pull a wall out, you would see the ghost of where it had been previously.

"In a way, what you're seeing is the history of the house and all of its different layers and manifestations," she continues. "And since 'Bluebeard' is a piece about this man who has all these former wives, we made the piece so that it was the house that he had lived in with all these different wives."

"Elektra" takes place in a very different kind of house--one that looks familiar on the surface. "A Douglas Sirk film is the perfect comparison," says Ginsberg, conjuring up images of "Magnificent Obsession," "Imitation of Life" and others. "It's not that we're losing all of [the work's] complicated emotions, but there is this veneer of beauty and idealism that is presented, and then this whole kind of eruption beneath that."

Lighting designer Geoff Korf, with whom Ginsberg has collaborated on many occasions, did lights for both "Bluebeard" and "Elektra," and Ginsberg and Rallo stress that Korf's contribution is an essential component of the design. "Unlike most lighting designers, he is interested in being involved in the early stages," she says. "Thus the lights and sets are inextricably linked."

As a creative team, they're all well aware that their interpretation of this Strauss classic may raise some eyebrows.

"It's definitely a huge experiment to see whether it can work in this context because the surround that we've created is very cool," Ginsberg says. "Usually it's done in a way that's always dirty--Elektra's always wearing rags and she's the outcast and there are these very stereotypical ideas about what that might mean. So we've really just cleaned the whole thing up."


"Elektra," Long Beach Opera, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Today, 4 p.m.; June 16, 8 p.m. $45-$95. (562) 439-2580.

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