Interview with Production Designer Charles Ogilvie

May 17, 2017
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Charles Ogilvie

Charles Ogilvie is a visual artist and set designer. His opera design debut in 2015 was L’Elisir d’amore for Bel Cantanti Opera, where he created digital animations and treated and re-edited archive film, to create a 1930s movie theatre setting. We talked to Charles about his approach to set design and inspiration for the set of La Femme Bohème.

MWO: Where have you drawn inspiration from for the set of La Femme Bohème?

CHARLES: We were determined to make the all-female concept work without resorting to fin de siecle tropes. We played with various ideas where the dynamics of an all-female group would sit naturally with the rest of the drama. At one point we were considering a nineteenth century Nantucket setting with whalers’ wives! The protest camp setting came out of my own experiences working in climate politics, the strange and temporary explosion that was the Occupy movement, and the exhaustion of public protest in the current political atmosphere (a subject which, Puccini aside, bears considerable contemplation). Our protest camp is a generic mash up of different causes and campaigns, but all the signs and banners are reproductions of real, documented protest material. There are a few visual arts gags thrown in for good measure.  

MWO: What makes an effective set?

CHARLES: Firstly it has to effectively cradle the drama. If this just means orienting the audience so the characters and interactions can achieve the director’s intent without confusion or distraction, then that can be enough. Secondly it should create additional visual interest, particularly in opera where there are often pauses in action owing to the music. I think there needs to a be a good ten minutes of interesting looking to be done at the set outside the drama. Theatre is very demanding in this way, as you can’t control where your audience looks (unlike film) so everything needs to offer something of interest or be satisfactorily blank. Finally, it has to practically work with the brief, the space, the lighting and the budget. In many ways the latter is the hardest. It’s easy to think of interesting ideas – it’s very hard getting them to work on a budget.

MWO: How have you and Julia Mintzer (our stage director) collaborated to create the setting for La Femme Bohème?

CHARLES: We worked over the last six months remotely, developing first the concept, then drawings, finally CGI renders of the set and detailed plans for props and set dressing. We have also had some really inspiring help from a couple of volunteers in the last few weeks in putting all this together, which makes all the difference. 

MWO: Have you and Julia worked together before?

CHARLES: We have worked together over the last couple of years on a few different projects. Initially Julia working with me on some of my art pieces, including featuring in and directing performance works in the US, UK, Italy and Germany. I think once she’d sussed out that I was competent she felt she could let me loose on one of her operas!