Yannis Thavoris, set designer

It's all about exploring the need to love and be loved

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Just around the corner is the premiere of one long-awaited production for the musical life of Helsinki - Britten's operatic adaptation after William Shakespeare's "A midsummer night's dream". Led by our desire to explore more about the stage design and ideas leading the invention of the stage set, costumes and affiliations we meet with Yannis Thavoris, the set-designer of our production, in one of the dressing rooms below Sonore-hall - the place where our singers are being turned into a realization of his and director Victoria Newlyn's ideas. The first question comes very much by itself and leads to several others! Enjoy them below and imagining the artistic atmosphere of our workshop, find what fascinates you the most by the words of this incredible artist!

Yannis was interviewed by students Aleksan Chobanov & Maiju Vaahtoluoto

What is the art of the stage designer?

Yannis: Well, the art of the stage designer... I’ve always kind of wondered if it is an art or a craft. Sometimes I perceive it as an art, sometimes as a craft. But what I can tell you for sure is it that it is multi-disciplinary. As a stage-designer you need to dabble with various disciplines and other art forms, so you have to know a little bit of everything - obviously starting from the visual arts. I am rather fortunate to have studied architecture, which involves the manipulation of three-dimensional space. But of course you need to know a little bit about painting, a little bit about sculpture, graphic design. So you have to stick your paws into lots of pots. And, apart from the visual arts, you need to involve psychology, all aspects of human activity - history of styles, furniture, fashion etc. So a little bit of everything - not as much perhaps as a true researcher would be involved with, yet you need to be generally aware.

The other thing about the art/craft of the stage designer is that it is collaborative and that is the most important thing. It is not about expressing yourself, it is about interpreting other people's visions. Starting from the people who created the original work of art - be it a play, an opera, or a ballet. You have to interpret their ideas and find a new vision for those. And, of course, on a second level – you have to work with the people who are putting together the show now - the director, the singers or actors, the lighting designer, the choreographer, etc. It is all about collaboration and the most successful experience is when this collaboration is harmonious and when everybody adds something to the process. When people feed off each-others’ ideas and build on them, take one thing and turn it into something better.

 

What do you want to communicate with your designs in general and especially in this particular opera?

What interests me, always with my collaborators, is to try and find new angles and illuminate the pieces in a fresh way – hopefully! I have never been interested in forcing a concept on pieces and people, I always enjoy it when together we find ideas which appear to be springing from within the piece. And so when I work with a director on an opera for example we try to go through it in great detail, so ideally every word of the libretto and phrase of the music can mean something as part of a new concept and suggest ideas coming from within. It is not about expressing oneself, you’re not exactly a poet of your own, it is more like being a translator.

 

How did the idea of designing the stage and costumes came to you?

The idea for this staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was completely Victoria Newlyn's - she is the stage director of the production)! We met last summer, we went for lunch and she said to me "I think I know how I would like do this piece!" and I was "Tell me, tell me, tell me..." - " I think we should set it in a summer festival!". The minute I heard it I thought it was brilliant. I immediately I saw the possibilities it could offer us and how it could illuminate the story of young love - what this piece is about - and it could become resonant and fresh and, again, how it could lead to finding the truth of the piece, which is very different to realism.

Then came the second part of the process: we started to look at pictures and images and see what exactly is a summer festival, what they look and feel like - "Ooh, there's Glastonburry, oh there's Latitude, oh there are (I don't know) so many summer festivals..."

For a while we thought that we should look at Finnish summer festivals, but then we thought that since we are both based in the UK, we know that situation and style better. Also the piece is Shakespeare and Britten - which couldn't be more British. So we decided that it should all be based on a British summer festival. That led to trying to find the stereotypes/archetypes for each character. So who is Hermia? Who is Demetrius? What kind of ‘tribes’ do they belong to? And of course who are Tytania and Oberon, who in the original are from another universe? In our version of the story we decided to turn them into pop megastar visitors from the USA… What are the fairies? In the piece there are ideas of different kinds of power. So you've got the supernatural world of the fairies, in our version translating into pop-stardom. Then you've got the earthly powers of Theseus and Hyppolita, represented by members of the aristocracy. And the ‘normal’ people are in the middle...

Is there anything else you can tell us about how the work with Victoria did influence your inventions and thoughts?

Throughout the process Victoria had very clear ideas about the structure of the piece. I was amazed with her clarity of analyzing the opera and structuring the events within, based on our original idea. Of course, we build on each other - which is exactly what I like in our job. The original idea evolves and becomes something alive. All the events we ended up on the stage came out of this process of "distilling". So in the end what visual elements do we really need in order to tell our story? The world of the mechanicals (Bottom, Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug) which is represented by the portable festival toilets - just very mundane and a little bit funny, because we are always interested in humour as a means to unlock the emotion. And then what could represent the world of a mega pop star visiting a festival? We took a bit of poetic license and invented this trailer which invokes a world tour of a pop star. This may probably not exist in a festival, because such a visiting star would be staying in a five-star hotel somewhere nearby and be helicoptered in. But for our purposes it is a hopefully clear and concise visual sign. And then the world of the ‘mere mortals’ is signified by the wall of tents in the back, which is a very familiar image of a summer festival. And, of course, the free-standing letters, I must not forget, which are very clearly suggesting what the setting is from the beginning, literally spelling it out. This is a word-play which came very early on - forest + festival = FORESTIVAL! We had fun playing with the letters and the various words we could spell with them as the opera progresses. In the end I think we distilled it to the very essence of what we need.

Which of the character/s challenged you the most and which piece of stage set proved to be challenging to adapt to this setting? Was there any?

No character on their own is challenging, it is the network of relationships between them that is actually challenging. When you decide on a new setting and take the decision for example that the fairies are not going to be wearing little wings and Tytania and Oberon are not going to be wearing either Elizabethan ruffs or gossamer gowns, inevitably you have to find the resonances and the new archetypes that the characters are going to be represented by. For a while we wondered as to who each of the mechanicals was going to be, because they have very specific professions in the original play and opera. That's where we took a tiny bit of liberty, because our intention was to make all of them real people who work in the festival.

When it comes to the set my biggest thanks goes to Purtsi (Pekka Purhonen) - our ‘one-man band’, who is building everything on his own. He has done a fantastic job! When we presented our plans to the technical team with we thought "Oh my God, this is too big, they won't be able to do it!?!" and everybody was like "Yeah! Yeah! We can do that." They have done an amazing job. Tytania's truck is a big stretch, for example, because it is such a big structure, but it has been built beautifully! Also I was worried about finding the real portable toilets and being able to adapt them for our needs, but luckily it was all possible and not too complicated!

Do you have a personal favorite character, if so who and why?

I am not going to say Oberon, because that is going to be too easy (n.a. Maiju and Aleksan - the interviewers are both cast as Oberon)! I think I like the fairies and the reason is probably because I prefer their music to any other music in the piece, as they sing the most straightforwardly melodic passages. But I think you should probably ask me again in a couple of weeks, because preferences mature and change - you see and hear things in performance which are different to when you are working with a recording. Anyway - you can never isolate just one character - it is all about the matrix of relationships and how each character interconnects with the others. That is the amazing thing about Shakespeare - he has such profound knowledge and understanding of humanity, so each character, be it the human lovers or the other-worldly fairy people - Oberon, Tytania - or the very ‘lowly’ mechanicals, they all are human beings of flesh and blood with their weaknesses and strengths and they all are looking to be loved in one way or another. The lovers clearly demonstrate that need, as they want to be validated through their partner. The mechanicals strive for love through their art - because they want to present something to an audience and get the pleasure that the art of performance gives, which is also an act of love. And, of course, the heightened passions of Tytania and Oberon, which is almost like the next chapter to the story of the lovers. So in all of these characters you can find useful insights about human nature.

It is all about exploring the need to love and be loved!