Designing ‘Faust’

In Portland Opera's new production of Gounod's classic, visual artist John Frame relies on collaborators to bring the audience inside the mind of the man who made the original deal with the devil

by PAUL MAZIAR

This June, the new Lyric Opera of Chicago-Portland Opera co-production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, directed by Kevin Newbury, will fill the Keller Auditorium stage for four performances, the production’s West Coast premiere. The visual artist John Frame —whose vignettes, sculptures, score and installations were a distinct hit when exhibited at the Portland Art Museum back in 2012 for his Three Fragments of a Lost Tale show — is the opera’s production designer. For Faust, Frame’s novel approaches to composition and his visionary aesthetic manage to locate the production inside Faust’s mind—and soul.

A scene from Portland Opera’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Although Gounod’s Faust is familiar, the Lyric Opera version was widely anticipated, in large part because of Frame’s reimaging of it, which includes sculpture, 3D projections, and a live video feed. It’s a production that, however augmented by contemporary technology, presents a world that’s of its own unique timeframe—neither present nor past.

“His art sees the world in a completely different way, reflecting the human condition in a way that’s poignant, dark and funny,” director Newbury told the Chicago Tribune about Frame’s work on the opera. “Our production team is taking his work as our inspiration. Because much of the opera is about Faust’s search for knowledge and truth, we portray him as an artist, searching for truth through his art.”

Composed in 1859, Gounod’s Faust is based on the first part of Goethe’s classic about a man who makes a deal with the Devil (Mephistopheles) for the promise of love from a young maiden. The tragic implications are obvious, but thanks to Frame’s highly imaginative work, this new version gets the touch of humor that many of the drama’s translators missed. Given the constraints of setting and duration, the opera version of Faust is less philosophically weighty than the familiar English-language translations of Goethe’s masterpiece.

John Frame

I spoke by phone with Frame from his southern California studio about his collaboration with his colleagues: Victoria “Vita” Tzykun (scenery and costume design), Duane Schuler (lighting design) and video designer David Adam Moore, along with director Newbury. The conductor for Faust’s score is George Manahan.

PM: I’m wondering if the Faust tale, told through the Gounod production, resonates with, or if it remains fresh to the contemporary world.

JF: When I was first approached by Chris Mattaliano, the head of the Portland Opera, he asked what I would like to do, and I sent him back a list of about a dozen possible productions that I’d be interested in and one of them was Faust. He and I both immediately agreed that Faust was the right thing to do now. My biggest attraction to it was that it deals with fundamental human questions, something I’ve tried to deal with in my own work since the very beginning.

I’m really interested in the oldest human questions: Where do I come from? What am I supposed to do while I’m here: What, if anything, happens when I die? What’s my relationship to nature? All of those questions are things that I hope live at the center of my own content. And in Faust, the fundamental question is: What if I get to a point in my life, where I feel like I’m wasting my life, or I feel like I’ve done it wrong?

In the traditional approach to Faust, he’s an old man and he gets to go back and have youth to start it all over again. My feeling is that the reason that can resonate for contemporary audiences is that it’s a question that anybody can hit at any time. Lots of people hit it at mid-life, the midlife crisis where you say, “I’m just wasting my life here, I’m on the wrong track.” But they find a way to reset. It can happen at any time though; it can happen when you’re 25.

Alfred Walker as Méphistophélès in Portland Opera’s new production of Gounod’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

What’s interesting about the way that Faust does it, is that he calls upon the devil. Instead of going to career counseling or something, or psyche counseling, he calls upon the devil, and the devil becomes the instrument of change. Mephistopheles is just a fascinating character to me, and Faust has stayed in the repertoire for so long for several reasons. One is that it’s asking fundamental questions; two is, Mephisto is just a fascinating character. It’s always great to have the devil on stage personified, and this is the charming, funny, nasty, very well-drawn version.

PM: You’ve talked about the importance of story in your practice—how connected to Faust were you in the beginning?

JF: I’ve always—well, certainly for the last decade or so—thought of myself as a non-linear, non-narrative storyteller. Maybe as a person who works with poetry, you can identify with that. There’s always a presence of story in what I do, but I don’t think if somebody tried to parse that, that they would be able to find specific symbolism where they’d say “this means this, and that means that.” It’s a much more abstract approach to storytelling, and I feel like it’s my natural bent and it’s worked very well so far with Three Fragments, and also with Part II of Three Fragments which I’ve been working on for the last few years.

To get to the second part of your question, which has to do with my approach to Faust: that’s a very different set of problems. There’s an existing framework there, of the narrative in the form of the libretto, and then the music. Those two things are very fixed-position elements that we had to work with. So there’s an interesting problem-solving that had to go on. I really wanted to be able to apply my normal approach to art-making, which is highly intuitive.

The entire team flew out to California from New York, and we spent a lot of time in my studio together, looking at all of the components that I had already built for Faust, and also looking at all of the rest of my work from the past decade. And without trying to analyze why, we selected things that just seemed to make sense. Some of those things I felt very strongly needed to be in the production, based on my intuition, but if you had asked me why, I absolutely could not have told you.

Now that we’re down the road a year and this is really all coming together, when someone asks the other members (not me, I’d have a different answer) why is this or that element in there, they now have a story for that. They’ve shaped a response that does, in fact, make sense in the context of the production.

PM: How does your role in the Faust production differ from that of your Three Fragments of a Lost Tale?

JF: Well, for Three Fragments, I was basically in charge of absolutely everything, and doing almost everything myself or with the assistance of a family member. So in terms of the day-to-day action of the work, it’s entirely different from what’s going on with Faust. I have had a lot of solo time to work on a bunch of the components, but ultimately, everything has to be filtered through a collaborative system that involves—most of the time—three other people, who are the director Kevin Newbury; the set and costume designer, Vita Dikun; and the video designer, David Adam Moore.

It’s definitely a different process, and of course I’ve never worked in this scale at all, and so I’ve had to really rely on these people to steer me when I’ve gone wrong. There are a lot of things about the amount of space between the objects that are meant to be on stage and the audience members.

The costuming was one of the more interesting parts of the collaboration. I’ve always tried to avoid any feeling of “period” in my work. I want it to be in a timezone that no one can quite determine: It’s not sixteenth century, it’s not nineteenth century, it’s not twentieth or twenty-first century. I’ve always wanted it to be outside of any ability to determine a period.

Originally, the production would’ve had costuming from top to bottom, meaning from the principals all the way through the chorus. That would’ve been based on the aesthetic that already exists in my work. But, because of some constraints, we ended up having to use existing costumes that were in stock in Chicago. We’ll have in some measure a kind of late-Victorian, pre-World War-I feeling about it.

That ended up being OK with me. In a lot of my own work—especially with the Three Fragments period—I’m using a ton of found objects, almost all of which are from exactly that period (about 1850-1920). So there is a kind of logic to the way that this has worked out. I’m a really big believer of intuitively following things and trusting that things are going to, generally speaking, move in the right direction. Especially with people. I came to be able to trust all of these people very early on. That made a huge difference.


Faust Overture Study from John Frame on Vimeo.

PM: In the Faust Overture Study linked on your website, you’re able to draw from all manner of sources for the setting: perhaps reimagined film- and photography-fragments, sculpture, constructed set pieces, found objects, all aided by the luxury of editing and being confined to that small screen. Did the larger, more temporal stage production in its present form bear any constraints that added to your original concepts?

JF: Yeah, there are lots of constraints, not only in the video elements in this production, but also the physical elements (the props). Everything has to be exaggerated in order to be read by the audience. My natural inclination is to work on something I’ve made in the studio that’s eight or ten inches tall that’s going to be twelve or fifteen feet tall — my natural inclination is to go for the refinement that I would want in the studio for those surfaces. But there really is no point in doing that, because the audience can’t see it.

Frame at Portland Art Museum 2012.

How that gets translated to the video elements of the production, is that David Adam Moore, who is doing that for us, has been back and forth with me over the last nine months to sort out which of the preexisting images that I already worked out in small-scale, primarily for internet. A lot of what I’ve shot has been for film work that eventually will be projected, if I’m lucky, in theatrical environments and in film festivals.

I’ve had to trust everyone when they say, “this won’t work in that scale,” or that the timing isn’t right for the music. I did the little Faust Overture piece to sort out for myself if the images felt right for the music. It led me to believe that, yes, the images will work with the music.

The one interesting thing going on here is that we’re using D3 projection mapping technology. We’re able to project onto things in ways that I have never even seen before. The D3 system allows us to put video only where we want it. I’ve done a lot of silhouette animation where a character walks from one edge of a table and walks across and off the other edge. David uses the projection technology to make it appear as though that character is walking onto a wall but instead with a doorway, so it looks like a shadow has walked through the door and onto the wall. It’s just really cool, a beautiful image.

Angel Blue as Marguerite in Portland Opera’s new production of Gounod’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

PM: How have you been challenged and changed by this Faust production?

JF: I thought that, when I was assigned the job of being production designer, I would have to come up with an overarching vision for the entire production. And it turned out that, even though I had parts of things that I came up with, I didn’t have that overarching, powerful vision for the entire thing.

The production design really is, genuinely, a result of collaboration. Using my name as production designer is not entirely accurate. We should all be credited, to some extent, and everybody should be credited with a little bit of everybody else’s, because we’re still collaborating, even now.

So though I didn’t experience “flow” in the studio part of the design phase, I have experienced it repeatedly with the elements that I’ve created, including the animations. For example, we’ve made Faust into an artist. He’s not the traditional scholar or doctor.

Jonathan Boyd as Faust in Portland Opera’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

One of the things that I wanted to do (and I’ve never done anything like this) is, when our Faust is on stage in his atelier, one of the first things he does is, there’s a wood block on his table, and he puts his hand on that block and I’ve made a stop-motion animation that creates Mephistopheles directly from that block in timelapse photography. His hand is moving on the block and we have a very large scrim onto which is projected, using projection mapping, Mephistopheles growing directly out of this block. He becomes completely animated and in costume from a raw wood block.

That was just really exciting to do. It was part of a long stretch of being in flow, because I had to start with the block… it took days and days and days to get this thing from a raw block to this fully articulated figure with fully articulated hands and feet, all of its joints and everything. That is an example of being in flow that I think has worked well.

Faust, a co-production between the Portland Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs June 8 -16 at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay Street. Four Performances: June 8, 10 (matinee), 14, 16 Portland Opera’s production of Faust is sponsored by The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation. A longer version of this interview appears in the current edition of Toi Toi Toi, Portland Opera’s program magazine.

Paul Maziar is a writer and small-press editor who writes mostly about the visual arts for ArtsWatch. His first pamphlet of poems, Little Advantages, was published in 2013, and was followed by three others. His first full-length poetry collection, Opening Night, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX [books]. He’s also written for artcritical, Whitehot Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as his blog rrealism.com.


Mefisto Leads Faust and the Blind Boy to the Well from John Frame on Vimeo.

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