Behind the Scenes Interviews

Q & A: 59 Productions Director Mark Grimmer on Working At Metropolitan Opera & Nico Muhly’s ‘Marnie’

One of the more interesting developments in the opera world is the convergence of the theatrical experience with the audiovisual arts.

At the Metropolitan Opera, this has been particularly noticeable in such works as “Satyagraha” and “The Enchanted Island,” where video projections are an essential part of the operatic experience, not only creating the environment, but also commenting on it. I won’t easily forget the way that “Enchanted Island” so vividly took us on a deep dive through the oceans until we met with the God Neptune himself. It was as immersive an experience as one could hope from the movies, and in opera, it was quite revelatory.

Part of this Wizardry comes from 59 Productions, which has been pioneering the convergence of theatrical and audiovisual experience across a wide range of art forms. Founded back in 2006, by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, the organization started off trying out many things before finding its way to the top.

OperaWire recently had an opportunity to talk with Grimmer about his experience with the company, its future, as well as providing some unique insight on Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” which will appear at the English National Opera later this fall and then head to the Metropolitan Opera during a future season.

OperaWire: How did you first get involved with 59 Productions?

Mark Grimmer: It’s going back a long way. I started working with Leo back in Edinburgh 11 years ago and at that time the company was doing different things. It didn’t do that much stuff for the stage and I was actually editing a magazine. And then we built up a number of projects together and then refocused for the stage. It evolved into what it is now. It was just two of us and now there are many more.

OW: Where did desire to become a director come from?

MG: We sort of had this vision that the company would be a vehicle to pursue whatever appealed to us. It was a means to an end. It has now grown into something more structured. We always loved visual design and storytelling and with where we are now, it is a nexus of those interests.

OW: Can you talk a bit about your actual role with the company and how you interact with different productions?

MG: We have our own internal process and then we fit into largely creative teams. The role we tend to play in a lot of opera is to form part of creative team on stage productions and work as part of design team. Within the 59 Productions team, there are a whole bunch of people working on every production. So, I lead the 59 team internally and work externally with the larger group. So, on a show like “Marnie,” we are co-designing with Julian Crouch and Michael Mayer is directing for the stage. I am leading a team of about 10-15 people working on that show in different capacities. We work as a team and there tends to be a nominated project leader on the 59 side. The title of director relates to leadership of those teams.

OW: What has the process for “Marnie” been like?

MG: “Marnie” is the most exciting configuration. Where possible, we come on as early as we can in the process and then work on conceptual development of the show. We’ve work with Nico Muhly before and he earmarked us to work on Marnie before writing the score. In this instance, there were conversations between Nico and Michael and myself before the ink was wet on the manuscript as it were. What was great here is that everyone has already fed into every element of the production. We’ve shared dramaturgical ideas, we’ve shared choreography ideas. It’s really a team effort.

OW: When did you start working on the production?

MG: It’s been about 18 months ago. Maybe a bit longer. That process began with a series of conversations. The nuts and bolts of the design work is in progress now. But the conceptual development, we started in an informal sense.

OW: Are you taking cues from the Winston Graham novel or Hitchcock film?

MG: That’s the question everyone wants to know. The truth is the novel is the source. And it is so rich. There is so much more than in the movie. But it is impossible to ignore the influence of movie, because everyone knows it.

OW: What can audiences expect visually from this production?

MG: It has been an interesting challenge. The pace of storytelling is quite cinematic and there are a lot of changes between location. So we wanted a set that could keep up with the pace of the storytelling and let us move quickly and fluidly. We’ve been co-designing with Crouch, who we worked with on “The Enchanted Island” at the Met. Together with him we designed a set that is really capable of reconfiguring itself and can work with the fast-pace that exists in the novel. So the physical set and projected elements are one and the same thing.

OW: What is the set looking like?

MG: It is a series of tall panels that move across the stage to form a series of projections. It also creates architectural space. The panels look like tall strips of paper basically. And for everything I said about being inspired by the novel and not the movie, we have looked at Saul Bass’ title sequences and that visual world around Hitchcock’s movies in general. And we also looked at that graphic design that was popular in the late 50s and early 60s.

OW: What has it been like to work with Nico Muhly?

MG: That is what is really thrilling on this and “Two Boys.” We look at the libretto and the scene layout and try to figure out a transition from one scene to another. What’s great is I can turn to Nico and tell him that I’m not sure how to make this scene change work and he’ll just write more music. So, the process is like we’re all making a living piece of theater. Which is different from making opera with a fixed score and a dead composer. It is a vital and living process. He’s responded to our ideas and we keep the music as a central focus.

OW: How has technology you employ evolved in recent years?

MG: The technology is changing at such a rate, that the trick is keeping up with possibilities. The technology provides so much opportunity for creative thinking. More and more is possible. We are using a system on “Marnie” that tracks movement on projections. So that when the panels move across the stage, the projection follows the movement onstage. It keeps the set alive throughout the show. So the technology is an enabler. We have another system that allows us to previsualize the show which is useful for sharing things with the team before we get on stage. This is an international collaboration and the ability to share the process is very helpful.

OW: What are the differences between staging for ENO and the Met?

MG: We know what to expect. The Met’s stage is so much bigger than ENO’s. One either takes a medium line and tries to design it for both. Or everything gets scaled up for NY. In this opera, we will use same set in both venues. We designed it to close vertical space easily. We previsualized in both and it looked great.

OW: What are some operas you would love to work on?

MG: We’ve been lucky to work with living composers like John Adams and Nico. And we’re talking to others about future projects. I am less led by specific titles and more about the process. I love living composers because it is a dialogic process and everyone can feed in ideas. We respond to music and it responds to us.

OW: What was the experience of working on the Metropolitan Opera’s 50th Anniversary Gala last May?

MG: That was thrilling because we went through the archives and recreated historic productions. One of the things we did was Chagall’s Magic Flute. It would be fun to take Chagall’s designs and bring it life a little more.

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