Shizuka Hariu
Shizuka Hariu

How do you take one of the most successful contemporary operas and present it in semi-staged form in the concert hall? This is the challenge facing designer Dr Shizuka Hariu when Kazushi Ono conducts performances of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall at the end of August. Recipient of the 2017 Bronze Medal of the World Stage Design, Dr Hariu took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her approach to tackling her first opera.

Written on Skin has been described as the finest new opera composed this century. In your opinion, what makes it a special work?

The plot of derives from the 13th-century French novel Le Cœur mangé, written by Guillem de Cabestany. The original story, as I understand it, is more concentrated on the topic of love triangles, whereas Written on Skin gives us time- and space-travelling through the music on top of this twisted love story.

I read Martin Crimp’s libretto several times in order to direct a film for Suntory Hall’s stage. The story contains such rich and complex metaphors and it goes beautifully alongside George Benjamin’s music. First, I interpreted the metaphoric narrative lines, such as the time- and space-travelling, the political situation, women’s rights, religion, the power of man, hierarchy in society, supernatural angels, and illuminated art in Medieval times. Next, I wanted to visualise these metaphors within my creative direction. These complex narrative elements are composed by short selected words. It is almost like reading Haiku, where we imagine and interpret between the lines and Benjamin’s impactful music transports us naturally from scene to scene.

Guillem de Cabestany © Public domain
Guillem de Cabestany
© Public domain

I am especially excited about the time-travelling element. For example, the main character Agnès dies on the site of what will become a Saturday car-park, framing the opera in our contemporary everyday environment, while the main part places us – and Agnès – in the epoch of the Middle Ages.

George Benjamin’s fluid, sensitive and simultaneously dynamic music draws visual images in spectators’ minds. It also leads my mind from the sound of the European Middle Ages to a somehow Eastern sounding environment. I believe that this music is timeless and not limited by borders between Western and Eastern cultures. I think this opera goes beyond these traditional cultural divisions, and gives us a wider sense of human life from the point of view of the angels in the story. The harmony between music and narrative makes this contemporary opera very special.

As creative director for these performances in Suntory Hall, I would like to create and transform these images for an audience whose cultural world is far from the European Middle Ages.

Have you seen the world premiere production, directed by Katie Mitchell?

Unfortunately, I have not seen the staging live, although I have watched the DVD several times. It’s absolutely stunning, a realistic Medieval setting, but at the same time the Angels' contemporary room and the staircase are more abstract, giving the audience both the Middle Ages and the contemporary world within one large section of the stage architecture. I wish I could see this staging live one day.

What are the challenges in presenting the opera for Suntory Hall and how do you propose to overcome them?

Suntory Hall is one of the best and most beautiful concert halls in Japan. The architecture has polyhedron walls and ceiling similar to Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie. Therefore, the stage is not a black box and cannot accommodate complex scenography or stage mechanics. I needed to design a simple set which creates the scenery for Written On Skin, but simultaneously I have to be sure that the audience will be able to see Maestro Kazushi Ono and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, who play this opera.

Scenography proposal for <i>Sacred Monsters</i> at Sadler’s Wells © Shizuka Hariu
Scenography proposal for Sacred Monsters at Sadler’s Wells
© Shizuka Hariu

This is one of the most difficult set designs in my 15-year career because it has to respect both the design of the concert hall and needs of the opera. The size of the set and the auditorium is not a problem for me as I have designed larger scale sets, for instance for Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem’s Sacred Monsters which toured to the Sydney Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Lyon, Athens and Barcelona among other venues. However, designing scenography with an orchestra in mind is a challenge.

Maestro Ono asked me to create a film on the stage that can provide limitless scenery for spectators, so I had to find a way of making my set design abstract and nothing too concrete so to avoid duplicating what is seen on film.

How closely have you worked with the conductor on presenting designs which will still allow the singers freedom to move around the orchestra?

Suntory Hall has a history of concert hall-style opera with several powerful productions by experienced directors. I am excited to be given this opportunity, but at the same time, I feel the pressure to create direction for the visual aspects for such an important opera alongside the world famous Kazushi Ono. It was at his suggestion that I was introduced to the Suntory Foundation for the Arts. I first met Maestro Ono when I assisted set designer Jan Versweyveld at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2003. Now, almost 15 years later, I am finally given the opportunity to work with him again. Indeed, I am excited and thrilled at this opportunity, but feel the pressure as well.

Scenography proposal for <i>Written on Skin</i> at Suntory Hall © Shizuka Hariu
Scenography proposal for Written on Skin at Suntory Hall
© Shizuka Hariu

Mr Ono kindly explained his view of the score scene by scene, giving me his ideas of singers’ stage positions. Then I explained my creative ideas about the film when I had finished the storyboards, which included ideas about location, my interpretation of the narrative, set designs, costumes, film directions, and lighting. We have had five meetings so far about Written on Skin, each taking three or four hours. He has given a lot of advice on singers’ movement, although they are going to use scores as it is still a concert style opera. One of the best moments of the collaboration so far was when Mr Ono visited my rehearsal studio to give advice to the dancers who performed in my film.

There are many elements to the creative direction, so I am working with many collaborators, including dancers, a camera director, an editor, a costume supervisor and props assistants.

How do the 12-metre LED screens work in practice? Do you sit there controlling the images by computer on the night?

I am now in the process of editing the film, which was shot in Erasmus House using real Medieval furniture, rooms and gardens. I also shot beautiful ruins for the fight scenes between the two men, and Agnès climbs a staircase in a 12th-century tower next to the church. We also shot forest scenes in each season, from autumn to summer; therefore our shooting took almost a year.

Written on Skin, Shooting environment with Piet Defrancq and Shizuka © Shizuka Hariu
Written on Skin, Shooting environment with Piet Defrancq and Shizuka
© Shizuka Hariu

What will your film look like? Are they recreating a real environment or something more abstract?

I would like to make this film as concrete and real for the architectural environment as possible, although the nature scenes are more abstract, allowing the audience space to imagine and feel the harmony between the lines of the opera. Besides that, I was challenged to depict contemporary spaces to show clearly that Agnès travels between Medieval and contemporary times. Film makes this possible, whereas it is harder to express this idea on stage; therefore we are working with both physical scenography and digital film.

What are the advantages to a concert hall staging of an opera as opposed to a full theatrical production?

Suntory Hall has a strong reputation for providing high quality concerts, so the audience will enjoy seeing how Maestro Kazushi Ono’s music direction alongside my scenography. Opera houses place the maestro and orchestra below stage level in the pit, so seeing both the music direction and creative direction should fulfil audiences both acoustically and visually.

I hope many people can come and enjoy this new version of Written on Skin!


This article was sponsored by Suntory Hall, Suntory Foundation for the Arts