Michael Levine might have become a painter; instead he went to the Central School of Art and Design in London and emerged as one of the foremost stage designers of his generation. We talked to him ahead of the return to London of Complicité’s groundbreaking stage production The Encounter, which he designed.

Wozzeck by Alban Berg for Zurich Opera
Wozzeck by Alban Berg for Zurich Opera

The Encounter takes place in the Amazon rainforest, but the presentation of that is anything but naturalistic…

The Encounter didn’t require a rainforest on stage, it just needed an environment in which the piece could exist. We’re in a time that’s extremely sophisticated technologically, so if the sound designer gives you an incredibly strong sound of a train, for example, I don’t need to put a train on stage because the audience will conjure it from the sound, then the lighting can augment that, video can add another layer… You’re constantly weighing how much information you need to provide the audience with to give a sense of place.

The Rakes Progress by Igor Stravinsky for Festival D'Aix en Provence. A co production with The Dutch National Opera and Complicite theatre
The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky for Festival D’Aix en Provence. A co-production with the Dutch National Opera and Complicité theatre

How did you become involved with the production?

Simon [McBurney, artistic director of Complicité] had started work on the project two years prior and I had seen a presentation of what they had done, primarily as a sound piece. I was really taken by it—I was really interested in this idea of a piece that exists in the auditory mind of the audience rather than in their visual mind. Simon was making sounds with objects that were the opposite of the jungle itself: plastic bottles of water, video tape, cardboard boxes, things like that. What was particularly beautiful was the transformation that then took place in the minds of the audience—seeing objects that had nothing to do with the narrative and that were being transformed. So you were looking at something and having this strange disconnect between the object and what you were imagining in your mind’s eye. I really liked that. It was as far from naturalism as you could get.

Capriccio by Richard Strauss, The Paris Opera Garnier.
Capriccio by Richard Strauss, the Paris Opéra Garnier

I read that you trained as a painter—is that right? Do you think painting has an impact on the way you think about stage design?

I did originally train as a painter. I was accepted into the Ontario College of Art painting programme after my year of foundation studies. I love to draw and do so as much as I can. I love pencil on paper and the act of observation. Drawing and observation are, I would say, one of the fundamental skills for working as a set designer. I use drawing as a kind of language and I think because I enjoy the process of it, it allows me to explore spatial ideas further, that’s to say that I can get lost in drawing and it takes me down thought avenues. I also studied art history for several years and this has been invaluable on so many levels—structure, lighting, proportion, etc.

The Elephant Vanishes, taken from Haruki Murakami's collection of short stories of the same name. At the Setagaya Public Theatre, Tokyo, May 2003
The Elephant Vanishes, taken from Haruki Murakami’s collection of short stories of the same name, at the Setagaya Public Theatre, Tokyo, May 2003

Where do your ideas come from?

When I was a student in the 1980s you used to go to the library and stack up books and make lots of photocopies, whereas now you can get everything through a Google Image search. You get a certain amount of information through mis-searches too. As a set or production designer you’re constantly circling around a piece with your collaborators, and looking at it from different points of view. You research when it was set, why it was written, what the impulse behind it was. How do you look at a scene, from the front or side? What is the point of view that you give the audience of the scene? Are we seeing it from up above? As you ask those questions, they begin to give you a certain number of answers. It’s like you’re dissecting something, and through that dissection you begin to understand how the organism works, and the more you look at it from different angles the more you begin to understand it.

“I would love to do more theatre. But it’s hard to resist when someone calls you up and says you’ve got something nice coming up in four years”

You do a lot of opera. Do you prefer it as a form?

It’s not that. It’s just that I get booked well in advance for opera! Opera companies book their seasons two or three years in advance, so it can become difficult to take on a piece of theatre, which often has only seven or eight months’ lead time. I would love to do more theatre. But it’s hard to resist when someone calls you up and says you’ve got something nice coming up in four years.

Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach. Paris Opera. Revived by La Scala in 2012
The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, Paris Opera. Revived by La Scala in 2012

Anyone visiting your website can see you make spectacular stage images. Is that particularly the case when you’re working on opera productions?

You’re working on a bigger scale, on a larger stage, in opera. Physically it’s a bigger space. Then, on another level, opera has this filmic quality. There’s something in the narrative of the piece that lends itself to a visual language. My job is to serve the story. In opera you can’t divorce the work from the music: you’re serving the music and the libretto. For example, Wagner in his pieces has these two parallel universes: one is the realm of the music, which is cosmic and strange and complex, and then you have these stories that sit within it which are rather simple stories about human nature—stories about fathers and daughters, and brothers and sisters. So you have these smaller stories within this larger landscape which is the music. As a designer you want to explore that in some way. It’s one of the things about Wagner that you can get lost in the music, the larger landscape, and you might not pay attention to the actual narrative. In a way, for me, the work I enjoy is to be able to juggle the two at the same time, so you serve the larger impulse of the piece without losing track of the smaller narrative. 


Michael Levine Studio