Friday, March 23, 2012

Artists Corner: Saraosta Opera Props Master Mary Houston

Artists Corner: Did you know that every prop you see on stage, from swords and furniture to the simple hankershief that brings down Otello's empire, is deeply researched, designed and created by our talented props crew? Sarasota Opera Props Master, Mary Houston, takes a minute to pull back the curtain on backstage to discuss the challenges she faced when given the task of creating the portrait of a young Vanessa that hangs over the fireplace in Samuel Barber's opera VANESSA.

As the prop coordinator here at the opera for the 2012 season, I've met the challenge of accumulating a myriad of elements for 4 distinctively different operatic works. One of the larger endeavors, which required the collaboration of several different departments and individuals, including myself, and quite of bit of time, was one of the main properties of the last show of the season, Vanessa. It is the near life size portrait of the character of Vanessa as portrayed by Kara Shay Thomson in Samuel Barber's opera of the same name.

I stepped into the role of prop coordinator in December. Prior to my arrival there had already been some discussion concerning how to make the portrait happen. Discussions had already taken place with Howard Kaplan, the resident costume designer as to Vanessa's wardrobe in the portrait. Georgianna Eberhard, the wigs and make-up designer had also been consulted. The materials they needed for their contributions had to be planned well in advance of a photo shoot which was tentatively scheduled to take place with Kara Shay, the week she arrived to begin rehearsals in early February.

Once I came on board, I realized we needed a photographer, an appropriate location for shooting, an historically accurate inspiration for the composition of the painting, and last but not least, a printer. My plan was to edit the photograph myself using photoshop, and transform the photograph into a believable painting, with the input of the set designer, Michael Schweikardt and the stage director, Michael Unger.

The painting is to have been made 20 years prior to the action of the opera, which would have made it around 1885. After completing research on portraiture in the late 19th century, we decided to loosely base our portrait on another very well known portrait, John Singer Sargent's "Madame X". The circumstances surrounding this painting, the scandal that ensued after its unveiling, and the somewhat "tabloid-ish" exploits of the Madame herself, who was indeed a real person, seemed appropriate fodder for our prop portrait.

Lucky for us, Rod Millington who was the publicity and production photographer for the opera this season, agreed to shoot the picture. Rod and I met prior to the photo shoot to determine its best location, based on natural light and the background. The photo shoot took place in early February. It was like any other fashion photo shoot you might imagine. Wardrobe and make up was on hand . I was styling and composing the picture with Rod, the photographer. The director Michael Unger was one hand as well to work with Kara Shay on her pose. It was truly a team effort. Once the shoot was done, I narrowed down the 60 or so images to one, and spent about 20 hours editing the photograph into a painting, which was printed on canvas in New York City, and shipped back, mounted to canvas stretcher bars and placed into the custom made frame on the set.

So, as you the reader can see, the seemingly simple painting over the mantle of the set in Vanessa, is not quite so simple after all. It took much coordination, planning and collaboration of several talented individuals to make it happen. For me as the prop coordinator, this was only one of almost 300 items that needed to be sourced, fabricated and coordinated for the 4 operas being produced this season. Something to keep in mind, as you enjoy watching these beautiful elaborate productions: In addition to the talented singers and musicians you see and hear during the performances, there is a very large group of talented individuals who's contribution is evident in all the elements you see on stage here at Sarasota Opera.

Mary Houston
Prop Coordinator
2012 Season, Sarasota Opera

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