The proscenium stage that we know today was invented in the 17th century. Before this time theatrical events took place out of doors on movable carts and platforms or in the banqueting and reception halls of palaces and great homes. Opera as we know it was invented in this period as an entertainment for rich and powerful patrons wealthy enough to commission these spectacular and frequently allegorical dramas set to music. An increasing demand for these entertainments led to the creation of public theatres with seating arranged around a stage that very much resemble a picture in a frame. The scenic designer of these productions (who often worked as an architect, engineer and painter) treated the stage as his canvas and carved and gilded proscenium as his frame.
Part of the challenge in designing the various locations specified in an opera was creating the illusion of depth on a frequently shallow stage. We need only to look at the painting of the period to discover the inspiration for theatrical designer of the day. Artists since the renaissance had perfected the study of perspective drawing and painting. These principles were used by stage designers to create painted scenery that reduced in scale as it approached the back of the stage. This “forced perspective” was employed on painted backdrops, side panels that slid back and forth into the wings and borders that were raised or lowered from the ceiling. Using these elements the designer could create changeable scenes of pastoral landscapes, turbulent seas, cloudscapes (often people with gods and goddesses) or virtually any desired location. Wooden clockwork machinery operated by stagehands was concealed below or above the stage and moved the scenery and provided the means for many special effects; hand cranked waves could churn a painted sea, chariots flew through the air on ropes and demons and dragons ascended from hell through trap doors. All theatres at the time were lit with candles or oil lamps and it is not surprising that most eventually burnt to the ground. A famous and perfectly preserved example with original machines and scenery is the Drottningholm Court Theatre in Sweden.
Opera Atelier is a company devoted to the production of period inspired opera, ballet and drama. As part of a creative team, the set designer’s task is to understand and visually interpret the style and technology of the baroque stage. While never recreating historical designs, Opera Atelier produces original sets and costumes inspired by these early sources.
Having researched the conventions of the early stage, the designer must then study the story line of the opera by reading the libretto and determining the changes of location from scene to scene. At this point he or she must consult with the director about and overall visual concept for the piece.
Ultimately, a good design is one that is both beautiful and functional. To ensure that is works in conjunction with the movements on stage required that the designer work closely with the director from the start. Drawings, painting and scale models are employed to establish the mood of each scene and to determine entrances, exits, and special effects. Generally a complete miniature set is created in advance so that the designer, director, carpenters and scenic artists can consult on the practicality an cost of the design. The designer must work with a technical director who oversees the construction and installation of the set, a lighting designer who will help create the changing atmosphere on the stage and pop makers who build furniture and objects handled by the singers or actors.
— Gerard Gauci, Set Designer