Stagecraft is the process of producing or staging a piece of film or theatre. It is a technical aspect of the production that helps establish the overall look and feel of an opera. It covers a number of elements, such as lighting, costume and set design. The music and lyrics to any production will generally stay the same, so it’s up to the process of stagecraft to set the scene.
So, for example, if a new production of Carmen (Bizet, 1875) were to move the action to 1980s London, the set designer might include a backdrop of Trafalgar Square and the costume designer could dress Carmen in a red ra-ra skirt. Perhaps Escamillo is a stockbroker shouting into a huge mobile phone, while Don Jose is an officer in the Met.
In big productions, stagecraft can involve many people, including carpenters, set designers, sound and lighting technicians, makeup artists and costume designers, among others. All of these come under the auspices of the stage director. In small or amateur productions everything might be done by just one or two people.
There are seven main elements of stagecraft.
The co-ordination and management of the action on stage. This covers where the actors are positioned on the stage, how and where they move, and how they talk and interact with each other. It dictates how the actors actually perform.
Quite simply, what the actors wear in order to establish the character. This also helps to determine time period, gender, personality, social class and more.
This combines with costume to create a character – contributing to each player’s individual appearance. As with clothing it can give an insight into personality. La Traviata’s (The Fallen Woman, Verdi, 1853) Violetta might be an unapologetic harlot with bright red lipstick and bold eye makeup, or maybe she is an innocent victim of circumstance, highlighted by much more subtle pinks to her makeup.
Short for ‘design properties’ these are all the objects that help establish scenes and events; Desdemona’s handkerchief in Otello (Verdi, 1887), for example. One well-known example from theatre is the knife in Macbeth – is the knife really there or does it exist only in the protagonist’s mind? This is a question to be decided by the propmaker, set designer and director and can have a profound effect on the way an audience reacts to Macbeth.
The set is where the action takes place. Design involves the planning of placement of the various props and backdrops that are to be used throughout the production. You can see how this must work in tandem with direction; for a performer to use a telephone, for example, both the actor and prop have to be in the right places on set. Another consideration would be whether the actor should be facing the audience during this telephone call; should they be side on, or maybe have their back to the audience?
How the stage is lit. This can help set time of day, location, mood and atmosphere. Combinations of different colours and brightnesses convey different feelings and settings to the audience. Dim blue and green light, for example, might be used to create the underwater scenes in Wagner’s Das Rheingold (1869).
Obviously hugely important in opera. The singing, the orchestra, any sound effects. This again contributes to setting mood and atmosphere, but also conveys the characters’ thoughts and feelings and helps establish a character’s personality – a self-confident bombastic man might be accompanied by loud trombones and sing in a boisterous manner.
These elements all combine to create what we as the audience see on stage, bringing to life the stage director’s artistic vision.
The crew build the set for a production at the Vienna Opera House in Austria (Jorge Royan via commons.wikimedia.org).