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Rafael Viñoly Takes The Stage

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Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects.

I've always enjoyed watching architects dabble in a myriad of creative disciplines. Leonardo da Vinci was an architect, painter, musician, and more. Le Corbusier was an architect and watchmaker. Recently, we've seen celebrity designers David Rockwell, Santiago Calatrava, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron take an interest in set design for theater. And most recently, Rafael Viñoly, one of the world's most renowned architects today, takes center stage, yet again, at Bard SummerScape for the Festival's first fully-staged production of Richard Strauss's opera, Die Liebe der Danae.

Viñoly, a lover of classical music and opera his entire life, is a musician in his own right. He was born in Uruguay in 1944. His father was a director for the National Opera in Uruguay. Viñoly studied piano from an early age and continues to play regularly. It wasn't until he was a teen that he decided to forgo a career as a musician and pursue architecture.

His talent and skill-set has allowed him to touch on a wide spectrum of project typologies, in particular, to work as a stage designer, albeit in just a handful of instances. I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to speak with Rafael about his design for Die Liebe der Danae.

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Rafael Viñoly portrait. Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects.

Jacob Slevin: Please describe your design for the set of Richard Strauss's opera, Die Liebe der Danae, in fewer than 160 characters.

Rafael Viñoly: A series of large scale photographic collages move through the stage to define specific spaces and create a cinematic character to the story. The images make reference to the the contemporary setting of the never-ending tale of love and money.

Jacob Slevin: When designing theater sets, how does your process possibly differ from more typical architectural assignments?

Rafael Viñoly: They are completely different processes. Architecture is defined by the specific conditions of each job. Designing for the stage is completely un-specific, in fact, it is about the undetermined, the impermanent, the suggestive. The process is therefore much more open ended, much more collaborative.

Jacob Slevin: Architecture and Opera are both disciplined arts. How do you see your art form complimenting the musical components, and vice versa?

Rafael Viñoly: Architecture and opera are different kinds of disciplines. If what you are referring to is how the visual and the musical interrelate, in opera that relationship is the essence of the art form. The connection is one, in my view, of clear dominance of the musical, not only because it preexists it, but also because it's the conducting line of the emotional content. Think of the difference between the role of music in a film or even in the musical theater. They are always atmospheric relative to the image. In opera, the stage is atmospheric and the music is central, not a vehicle for the story... it is the story.

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Photo courtesy of Rafael Viñoly Architects.

Jacob Slevin: Photography and perspectival ownership appear to be substantial tools you deploy for the set design. Can you please elaborate on these elements.

Rafael Viñoly: Not always--I don't think that photography is such a useful tool for me when thinking about a stage design, but perspective, as in depth, is definitely the sacred grail. The stage is a picture frame and it tends to flatten the space. I am interested in braking that plane because it brings the audience into it, making the participatory nature of a live performance much more compelling.

Jacob Slevin: What is the most meaningful design moment you'd hope people in the audience see and notice?

Rafael Viñoly: I think that the visual setting in an opera is a support to appreciate the music. There are moments in which a clue, a color, a movement makes the singing voice more intense, more sublime or more dramatic. The voice is ultimately the gift we receive from the composer.

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Jacob Slevin is the CEO of DesignerPages.com and the Publisher of 3rings.