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Fine Art and Music collaborations in Baroque opera

By Eva Masterman and Irene Brown

Fine Art and Music collaborations in Baroque opera began in 2018, when the charismatic new Head of Performance and internationally-recognised countertenor, Larry Zazzo,  persuaded Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Irene Brown to collaborate in the staging and performance of the Baroque pastoral opera, Handel's Acis and Galatea.   Zazzo runs the ambitious Performing Baroque Opera module where students gain experience and develop performance skills through the fully staged production and public performance of an early opera.

Irene’s role was set designer for the one-night-only production at the Victorian Tyne Theatre and Opera House, Newcastle, in spring 2018. As a sculptor and site specific installationist, Brown most often makes work for museum’s and heritage sites, so she is familiar with working in challenging environments. This project had its own particular requirements however; the set had to describe the location of Arcadia,  be impactful, contain some kind of fountain or water feature, be large enough to occupy the expanse of the stage, alter throughout the performance and had to be climbed by the villain, the giant Polyphemus. And all on a shoe string of approximately £200.  It also had to fit in a van and be installed by 2 people in just a few hours.

Irene decided to create a three screen video installation as the backdrop to the Opera. Working in video supported ambitions of scale, breadth of imagery, simplicity of design and low expenditure. The only costs incurred were for 3 large, projection screens, constructed in the workshops in Fine Art.  Two postgraduate art students Shaney Barton and Ryan Boyle helped to produce the video content and install the screens. The waterfall, mountain and temple videos were synced together, gradually fading from full colour to black and white as the harmony in arcadia becomes disrupted, jumping suddenly to red as Acis the hero is murdered by Polyphemus. The opera was also performed at Seaton Delaval Hall, the romantic ruin of a baroque mansion (National Trust) designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1718, the same year as Handel’s Acis and Galatea premiered.

The success of this inaugural collaboration was followed in 2019 by Eva Masterman, Norma Lipman Ceramic Fellow in Fine Art, this time working as set designer for the opera Dido and Aeneas. Her work deals with the intersections of staging, theatre craft and ceramic sculpture, and she therefore jumped at the chance to work on her first real stage set. Eva was awarded a HaSS Faculty Research Institute Pioneer Award to support the production of  the set as part of her research practice.  With student mentoring built into the project, students from the Fashion Club and Fine Art were involved in costume and set design. Taking inspiration from traditional Baroque stage design that used ‘flats’, the set comprised of a large set of arches that, through dramatic lighting changes, switched from Palace, to Cave, to Ruin as the story unfolded.

Due to numerous issues (including COVID and a broken leg), the full opera was unfortunately cancelled. However, the set and a sound piece of Dido’s Lament, sung by graduate music student Anna Dias, will be exhibited as an installation at Seaton Delaval Hall from the 23rd June – 17th July 2021.

These initial projects between Fine Art and Music act as successful test cases for future and perhaps wider collaborations, potentially with Opera North and the National Trust, once public performance is back on the menu.

Acis and Galatea Promotional Video

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences