The Lyric Opera of Chicago (20 N. Upper Wacker Dr.) premiered a new production of Gounod’s “Faust” March 9. Originally written in 1859 as an epic poem by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the opera has been reimagined by director Kevin Newbury with the help of artist John Frame. The elaborate and expansive set design differentiated this production from other versions thanks to Frame’s vision.
“Faust” revolves around the titular character and his struggle with the question, “What should you do if you look back on your life and realize it’s being wasted?” — which Frame said can be asked at any age.
Frame’s attraction to “Faust” comes from the universality of this question. It appeals to his own interest in art and its means of expression.
“As a work of art, for me, it does what I think I try to do and what I think most of the important works of art that I care about try to do, which is to deal with fundamental human questions,” Frame said.
As the production designer for the opera, Frame used his experience as a sculptor and filmmaker to revamp the visual spectacles which would accompany the lyrical music in “Faust.” New to the opera, Frame needed an expert team to help execute this production.
“When I was approached about doing this — clearly I have no experience in either theater or as an opera production designer — I had to rely very heavily on the team that was assembled,” Frame said.
The team he referred to was comprised of Newbury, set and costume designer Victoria Tzykun, video designer David Adam Moore and lighting designer Duane Schuler.
Collectively, the team decided to utilize Frame’s body of work, which deals with the fundamental human questions Frame seeks to answer as the inspiration for the set of “Faust.” Frame said his work as an artist motivated him to take on this project. Complex arrays of projection, animation and wooden set pieces during the production displayed Frame’s artistic talent, while also appealing to the drama of the opera.
In addition to his old work, the team experimented with new projections of light and shadow to play with this opera’s dark undertones.
“We noticed that a lot of the shadows that were almost inadvertently … being created by the use of the projector in my studio, the shadows were just really, really interesting, and we all got very excited about that,” Frame said. “From there it just kind of morphed from shadows to shadow play to silhouettes and we’ve used them extensively.”
As Frame’s artistic nature flowed with the team of opera experts, the risks taken in this new production payed off. Frame said they wanted to gear the opera toward a younger, college-aged audience. Critiques of Frame and his new direction with the set of “Faust” come from older, more traditional opera goers.
“We wanted to really take some risks and try and produce something that would be more contemporary but never confrontational,” Frame said. “None of us really wanted to include anything that was gratuitous or in the audience’s faces or anything like that.”
After viewing the set during the performance, it’s evident the set is an additional tool for the audience to experience the musicality of the opera. Stop motion movement and movable sculpture made the concepts of the opera come to life in an artistic way, rather than the imaginative experience of past operas.
Frame said he wants younger audiences to know they should come open-minded when approaching an art form such as opera.
“I really think it’s important for people to let go of thinking when they experience a work of art and that is what I would ask them to do,” Frame said.
As this production team tries to make opera enjoyable for a younger audience, Frame hopes to capture the curiosity of viewers for the preservation of the future of opera.
“I’m afraid that it’s going to die unless it opens itself to younger people and really encourages them to come and see something that is just visually exciting and fresh,” Frame said.
Frame’s unique production design, with the help of a talented opera production team, elevated the opera to new artistic heights — surely captivating audiences of all ages.
“Faust” will run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago until March 21. Tickets are available online. For box office inquiries, call 312-827-5600.