Meet the set designer of Guglielmo Ratcliff Gary McCann

Wexford Festival Opera's Tracy Ryan chats to (Irish born) international set and costume designer Gary McCann (set designer of Maria de Rudenz) about growing up in Armagh, high-fashion and creating spaces to drive the drama.

This is your first time designing for Wexford Festival Opera. How did the collaboration come about?

I came to Wexford a few years ago and met up with David (Agler), and showed him my portfolio of design work - I was just starting to move into the opera field at this point. I guess I’ve stayed on his radar all this time and he introduced me to Fabio Ceresa recently, with a view to us collaborating on Maria di Rudenz.

Your work is absolutely out-of-this-world! How do you think growing up in Armagh, Northern Ireland influenced your career and work and imagination?!

Why thank you! I don’t think there are many opera designers coming out of County Armagh - there wasn’t a culture of theatrical or classical performance near where I lived that inspired me as a child. I really enjoyed literature, music and art at school, and had some fantastic teachers at Portadown College who filled me with enthusiasm for the arts. When it came to choosing a degree programme I found it impossible to choose between English Literature and Fine Art. Eventually I came to the conclusion that in studying Theatre Design I would be able to pursue both of these interests in my studies and career. When I graduated I was warmly welcomed by Belfast-based theatre companies; The Lyric, Kabosh, Ransom, which was a tremendous help in the early years of my working life.

You recently co-designed the costumes with Dutch fashion designer Winde Rienstra for Madam Butterfly for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Do you think that the link with high fashion and opera is becoming more prevalent than it has been previously?

I have to say I absolutely love looking at the fashion world for inspiration. In fact a few years ago I designed a Fledermaus for Norwegian National Opera in which all of the outrageous party costumes were a pastiche of contemporary haute couture. Opera to me has much in common with the world of avant-garde fashion - where wild creativity and a conceptual approach are fused with modern technologies and processes.

I’m much more interested in this than in slavishly recreating precise replicas of authentic period garments. Working with Winde was an interesting experience. She’s an incredibly talented and creative person. I certainly think there are more and more links with the fashion industry and opera - because of the celebrity and caché a well-known designer can bring to a production.

Fashion designers need to be careful though - they sometimes seem to fail to grasp the significance of telling a narrative within their work - and also the crucial difference between seeing something up close, and from 20 metres away.

Can you describe your creative process for the set of Maria de Rudenz so far this year and at what stage are you at now?

I have just returned from a trip to Italy to see the progress the set builders have made! So we are at a fairly advanced stage. The process of developing the designs was enjoyable - Fabio, Giuseppe and I connected straight away and we worked quickly in coming up with the central concept. I’m always interested in spaces which evolve and transform, helping the story unfold and keeping the audience guessing. So without giving too much away, we have various mysterious moving elements which create all sorts of variations.

Cinematic elements and tricks of the mind seem to play a part in operatic set design which is always a treat for audiences. Where do see the future of operatic set design and what other elements are coming into play?

I'm less interested in ‘tricks of the mind’ and more focused on making psychological spaces - how the volumes and textures of the space reflect the relationships and emotions that drive the drama. The scenography exists in various planes - the concrete physical space of the staging, in the fusion of the image and the music, in the imaginations of the audience who interpret and personalise the experience.

It's hard to say where the future of operatic performance lies - obviously designers are more and more integrating projection and technology into their work.  But in a way for me the world of opera has a timelessness, where past, present and future meet - audiences are drawn to it even though the stories may be centuries old, the characters experience the same sort of human conflicts and connections that you or I do today, the music is still able to stir and speak to us.

Maria de Rudenz runs at the National Opera House 28, 31 October and 3, 6 November. Book tickets here or by emailing or calling 1850 4 OPERA/+353 53 912 2144.