New Sets for The Pirates of Penzance
By: Angelica DiIorio
The scenery is an integral part of any production—it invites the audience to be a part of the story. For many operas, sets are created and shared among opera houses, giving each production a classic feel. For example, the late Ercole Sormani designed the sets for our 2021 production of Tosca.
The sets for Opera Colorado’s new touring production of The Pirates of Penzance are slightly different. Our Director of Education & Community Engagement and the Director of the Artist in Residence Program, Cherity Koepke, had a vision for the sets, and a team of designers and artists made them a reality.
Together, let’s learn about the creation of The Pirates of Penzance sets. We will hear from the design team about how these sets went from images and ideas to three brightly-colored backdrops, which travel to schools and community centers throughout Colorado.
Step One: The Scenic Inspiration
Cherity Koepke first worked to create the new abridged version of The Pirates of Penzance.
Then, she turned her mind to envisioning the sets. Drawing inspiration from numerous sources, Cherity pulled images of pirates and ships to create a collage of ideas.
With a clear vision in mind, Cherity began a collaboration with a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder who helped to bring her ideas to life: designer Bruce Bergner, an Associate Professor of Theatre Design & Technology; builder Ron Mueller, Production Director; and painter Annika Radovcich, a junior-year B.F.A. student.
Step Two: Designing The Pirates of Penzance Sets
Designer Bruce Bergner, who has worked on The Pirates of Penzance at other venues, believed the set should have a larger-than-life quality. He explains, “I kept thinking about storybook illustrations. The scenes and characters leap out in my imagination as storybook characters in a storybook world. They are a little more colorful and richer than real life. There is a painterly feel to the images that come to mind when you listen to the work. So, I went in feeling like the sets should be living book illustrations that could ‘turn’ in front of the audience from look to look.”
Bruce researched the specific style of scenic painting used in opera sets during the time of Gilbert and Sullivan, the librettist and composer of The Pirates of Penzance, respectively. He summarizes this research by adding, “If you look at the work of scenic art in its golden age…the moon glows in a way that is more intense than in real life. Clouds have a whimsey to them. The way light and shadow dance together has a sparkle to it.”
Bruce sketched these ideas as black-and-white images and then sent them to Cherity for approval before he finished his renderings with rich-colored hues.
Step Three: The Logistics
The metal framework used for Opera Colorado’s touring sets can fit two drops or backgrounds. However, The Pirates of Penzance needs three distinct settings: a ship, a cove, and a courtyard. The design team had to find a way to make it work. According to Bruce, “We arrived at a way to peel one set of painted drops off the frame in portions, to expose the next painted look. It involves using the cast to help with scene changes… It’s like the turning of leaves of paper.”
Another difficulty the team faced during this process was that Bruce was injured and unable to complete the painting of the sets by himself. Fortunately, the solution came in the form of young talent, University of Colorado Boulder student Annika Radovcich.
Step Four: Painting The Pirates of Penzance Sets
With Bruce unable to complete the sets, Annika stepped in to paint all three scenes. She decided to break the painting process into a few steps. First, she scaled the designs from paper to the much larger canvas, figured out how much paint she would need for each color, and determined how long each drop would take to complete. Next, she prepared the canvas drops. Each canvas must be starched, so the final product is stiff and unwrinkled, and then covered with a base coat. Finally, the painting could begin!
The ship scene was the most difficult to paint for Annika. She shares, “The ship drop is the smallest, but it is the most technically complicated. It was one I was very scared and intimidated to do. So much relied on being really accurate with my lines. Perfectly vertical or horizontal.”
Seeing the ship scene finally complete was incredibly rewarding. “I loved seeing that final product and learned so much,” Annika adds. “I really liked painting the celestial skies. One of my favorite parts was dotting these little, glittery details on the sky.”
Step Five: Opera On Tour
After months of planning, preparing, and painting, the sets are ready to go! The Education Team and the Artists in Residence are excited to share The Pirates of Penzance with learners young and old throughout Colorado. But will little kids enjoy it? We think so! Ms. Koepke explains, “I get people asking me all the time, ‘Will kids that young really sit through a full performance?’ and they will. We have three and four-year-olds that will sit through a fifty-minute show absolutely hypnotized, and then you have 350 little voices all screaming ‘bravo’ at the end. It is the most wonderful thing.”
These sets tell the tale of The Pirates of Penzance, but their creation has a story of its own. That story cannot be shared without mentioning Joyce de Roos. Joyce and her late husband Dirk have been avid supporters of the Artist in Residence program for many years, from sponsoring artists to hosting them in their cabin in Jefferson, Colorado. When Joyce sold this cabin, she used some of the sale to fund the creation of these Opera on Tour sets.
Dirk was honored several times throughout the production to thank the family for this generous contribution. In the first set with the pirate ship, you can see Dirk’s initials “DDR” painted in a scroll below the captain’s wheel. His name appears again in a painted barrel that says “Old Seadirk.” Lastly, Dirk was very interested in history, and the Artist in Residence Joyce is sponsoring this season is wearing a historical replica costume as the Major General. Once the sets were complete, it seemed only fitting invite Joyce to help christen them before their maiden voyage. As you can see, we had quite the celebration!
Dirk is deeply missed by the Opera Colorado family. We hope these touches serve as fitting tributes for such a wonderful man.
We hope you enjoy the sets and have the opportunity to see The Pirates of Penzance at your school or community venue! Book a touring production by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 303.778.7350.
Did you know that Opera Colorado offers partial scholarships for ANY of our educational programs? Scholarships are available on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, please fill out and return the appropriate application: School Scholarship or Community Scholarship.