A subversive take on the stage

If you were to pick one production from the National Opera’s vast repertoire to see this season, it would have to be Vincenzo Bellini’s «I Puritani» (The Puritans). Not so much for the opera itself – the triumph of innocent love set during the English Civil War between the Royalists and the Puritans in the 17th century – but because it offers a unique opportunity to witness the work of a set designer who is rumored to be going on to design the sets for the 2012 London Olympics. Her work for «I Puritani,» a co-production between the Athens Concert Hall, Amsterdam’s De Nederlandse Opera and Geneva’s Grand Theater, is a visual experience beyond the conventional. Only a few years ago, Es (as in Esmeralda) Devlin was Britain’s rising star of set design. She started out by suggesting forward-looking, subversive set designs. Soon her name became synonymous with contemporary, daring and provocative work, which resulted in her getting noticed by professionals in other creative fields, such as the music industry. «My mother was a choir singer and she adores opera,» Devlin told Kathimerini, adding that she started attending English National Opera productions at the age of 13. Subsequently, her first opera project took her to Vienna and Ernest Bloch’s «Macbeth.» Right from the start, her intentions were clear: A black box similar to a camera obscura used as a visual arts allegory for Lady Macbeth’s conscience. Vienna paved the way for more commissions: «Don Giovanni,» a co-production by the Vienna and Copenhagen opera houses, was set in a moving hotel corridor, an idea based on Stanley Kubrick’s «The Shining» and «Eyes Wide Shut.» For «La clemenza di Tito,» a joint production between the opera houses of Barcelona and Leipzig, she took the layout of Pompeii and used it as a kind of facade of a multileveled, abstract construction. At London’s Royal Opera House, Devlin worked on Philip Glass’s «Orphee,» contributing a 12-meter glass arrow that raised the singers from the orchestra level to the Linbury Studio Theater stage. Then came the music industry. The first concert she worked on was for English rock act Wire at the Barbican Center, where she divided the stage into three big boxes, placing each band member on top. The idea reached Kanye West, who invited her to work on the set design of his US «Touch the Sky» tour – the two worked together again on the rapper’s next tour, for which she envisioned the barren surface of an unknown planet. Following West, it was Mika’s turn, while the avant-garde Pet Shop Boys had discovered her talents back in 2001; they worked together in «Closer to Heaven,» a musical by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Last year, Devlin crossed the final artistic frontier when she designed the costumes for Sally Potter’s «Rage,» starring Jude Law and Judi Dench, which just opened at the Berlin Film Festival. No stranger to the film world, she has worked on a number of independent short and medium-length films, among them Mike Figgis’s «The Four Dreams of Miss X,» featuring Kate Moss. Has she ever thought of dedicating herself to a single genre? «I really enjoy the influence that one might have on the other,» said Devlin. «Let me give you two examples: Inviting a classical ballet choreographer onto a pop project and using state-of-the-art lighting devices in an opera.» How does she manage to speak to such diverse audiences? «Every audience has its own visual culture and everyone enjoys following a narrative. I find that there are more points in common than what we might expect.» Her days seem loaded with work. «All jobs seem easy when compared to my duties in raising a 2-year-old daughter,» she said. Is it true that you are going to have a key role in the ceremonies for the London Olympics? «Those are just rumors.» Vincenzo Bellini’s «I Puritani» at the Athens Concert Hall, 1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias, tel 210.728.2333. Performances tonight and Thursday.

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