World renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor has joined forces with director Daniel Kramer and conductor Edward Gardner in a new production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The ENO plays host to Kapoor’s monumental set design, which features striking colours and bold shapes. Wagner’s operatic masterpiece tells the legend of Tristan and Isolde’s ill-fated love story and Kapoor’s use of scale provides a mythic setting. Kapoor’s unique approach and aesthetic has been blended with the dramatic score of Wagner to form an extraordinary production.
I spoke to Anish Kapoor during a break in rehearsals at the home of the ENO, the London Coliseum, about his designs for the show and the process of working on an opera.
This is a large production so you’re collaborating with numerous people. How has this process been?
The piece itself, Tristan, is so complex, that getting a handle on it has been the hardest part. Once there are a few ideas, and they begin to make sense, then it’s a matter of galvanising everyone, or trying to, around those ideas; so that we can all pull in the same direction. Of course I’m not the director, I’m designing, but Daniel and I have had a very close collaboration, so that’s important too. It’s great fun, by the way.
You’ve designed sets for opera before. How do you approach it? It is a different process than making your other works? Obviously there’s a set storyline here…
Yes. You’ve got it really. It has to be different. Making work in the studio, I try not to over direct the work, to let what emerges emerge and then work with it. Here, of course it necessarily predetermined by a certain sequence of things. You can be quite abstract about it and take a tangent to the narrative, but at the same time you’ve got to hold it.
Wagner, and in particular this work, are very powerful, was it daunting to approach such an iconic work?
I’ve done Parsifal before, that that was much more difficult because the story in a way is much more complex and the whole piece resolves itself in a completely different way. This at least starts out at a kind of love story made of jealousy, death and power. It’s all about power, his power and her power and how they negotiate power, mostly her power. That’s rather interesting that he is a much weaker character than she is. She is a force, a feminine force, and that’s fabulous. In the end it’s mythic, it isn’t really a love story. It’s a mythic story, it could be happening on Mount Zeus with all the Greek gods. It’s got that kind of Germanic mythic quality. The problem with the set is how you hold that. So, they’re not human beings, they’re pretend human beings in a way. I think that all has to do with scale. The idea is that the set has to somehow elevate the singers to be Gods.
Will the set evolve or change throughout the performance?
Yeah there is a small bit in Act 2 where it actually moves. That’s the thing, how to really let the music do what it has to do and not take over the whole space by having everything moving around and tumbling up and down. I’d rather leave space for the opera, let the music do what it does and let the set fill in, but deal with the question of scale.
I’ve seen gold in the adverts for the show, particular lining my journeys on the tube. How did you decide on the palette?
There are a lot of lights, we use the lights full on. Light is fabulous on objects; it really transforms them. It’s all an illusion. That’s one of the great things about theatre. We walk in, and are willing to suspend our disbelief. We’re willing to enter into a process that says: “transport me, take me off and make me believe in the unbelievable". I think that is what making a set is all about.