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The climate emergency concerns everyone. With its Green Opera project, La Monnaie is seeking to reduce the environmental impact of its activities, and this includes the making of its sets. The stage sets for Cassandra reflect the efforts made in recent years but also what remains to be done …
The set design of our first opera of the season is the result of a meeting between two artistic paths: that of set designer Fabien Teigné and director Marie-Eve Signeyrole, on the one hand, and that of La Monnaie’s workshops, on the other. From the outset, the idea was to achieve a set that adhered as closely as possible to our objectives in terms of sustainability. Indeed, we want to pursue the targets set by the European Union for reducing carbon emissions by 2030. This means reducing not only the environmental impact of our activities in general, but also the activities linked to the creation and presentation of our opera productions. For the set design, the international reference framework Theatre Green Book suggests that by 2030 at least 50 per cent of the materials used in a production (scenery, props, costumes, etc.) should come from recycled sources and that 65 per cent of them should be upgraded or recycled.
DESIGNING THE SET
The ecological footprint of an opera set is largely determined by its design. Establishing a dialogue between the technical department and the artistic teams from the very start of the creative process is therefore crucial. In designing the set for Cassandra, one of the initial ideas was to only work with surviving sets from our previous shows. ‘But from a creative point of view’, explains Cécile Bourguet, technical production manager, ‘that was too restrictive. So in the end, we decided to go about things differently, asking the set designer to create a project with as few elements as possible on stage, elements that could fit into a small number of containers’.
With this direction in mind, Marie-Eve Signeyrole and Fabien Teigné had a year to present a model to the teams at La Monnaie. Fortunately, their pared-down dramaturgical language, the result of ten years of fruitful collaboration, was well suited to our requirements, as the set designer explains: ‘We like to work on differences in scale, on elements of surprise, on relations to theatrical conventions. We use props to evoke a lot of things while lighting effects encourage the audience to use their imagination to complete our ideas.’
As a result, several elements of the set design for Cassandra can be put to different uses throughout the show. In one of the first scenes, Sandra gives a talk from behind an ice lectern that collapses into fragments. Later in the story, her father, insensitive to the environmental cause, picks up one of these fragments and drops it in his whisky. ‘Our set is designed to serve several functions. The central cube can stand for a huge iceberg, a library or a beehive. It allows us to say a lot with rather little.’
The result of these preparations is a structure that is very efficient in terms of surface area, energy and materials. The list of ingredients for the set design of Cassandra is rather short: a two-piece cube, white sheets, some infrastructure under the stage, tulle, video and subtle lighting effects... When the time comes, this set can be dismantled and its various components sorted, recovered, sold or recycled.
MAKING THE SET
La Monnaie has a long history of initiatives taken to reduce the impact of set construction. For example, the wood we use is FSC or PEFC certified, guaranteeing that it comes from sustainably managed forests. We also make our rehearsal sets using as many elements as possible from our own stock. For Cassandra, we were able to go even further, as the performance set is already being used for rehearsals.
‘The sober nature of what this show puts forward is in itself a big step in the right direction from an environmental point of view’, says Etienne Andréys, head of scenery workshops. ‘After the model was presented, we thought about how to optimize technically the choices made by the artistic team so as to make the set as sustainable and responsible as possible. For example, we reused the entire stage floor from Die Zauberflöte. It had already had a second life in The Nose and is now again being used in Cassandra. We changed the dimensions and colours: at first white and beige, it became shiny black and is now matt black with puddle effects. This may seem anecdotal, but a process like this requires a great deal of organization: recovering the stage floor at the end of Die Zauberflöte’s run, storing it with a view to reusing it one day, planning The Nose and Cassandra at the same time so that the plans fit together, and so on. I don’t yet know exactly how much CO2 we saved – those calculations are ongoing – but the important thing is that the process is under way.’
AFTER THE LAST PERFORMANCE
Once the run of performances is over, the set will be stored at La Monnaie or in a partner venue until it might be reused. Then, either certain elements will be salvaged to serve as a basis for new shows at La Monnaie or its materials will be reinjected into the recycled products circuit. Since 2022, we have increased the sorting and selective collecting of our end-of-life set elements and of the offcuts from the Workshops. They are dismantled by our in-house teams, which enables to pay particular attention to the reuse of metal, wood, cardboard, polystyrene, flexible materials and plastic packaging, among other materials. La Monnaie is also a co-founder of In Limbo, a platform that enables materials to be exchanged within the sociocultural sector.
As we can see, the solution to a complex problem is often complex itself. While our props workshops are already approaching the aforementioned target of 50 per cent reuse, this figure is still very hard to reach for the scenery workshops. It is by dint of initiative and innovation that ever more significant changes will be possible. ‘The advantage’, as Cécile Bourguet adds, ‘is that we can try new things. We have experimented a lot and continue to do so’. For example, it was thanks to this approach that elements of the metal structure used in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle & The Miraculous Mandarin were altered to serve as the basis for the set of Il trittico. ‘Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, not least because there are so many parameters to consider. For example, in terms of dimensions and equipment, we have to make sure that each element is compatible with the stage and machinery of our co-production partners. Nothing is simple, but you have to start somewhere.’
EVER GREENER PRODUCTIONS
Society’s values are changing and new practices have to be found. Reducing the number of productions of iconic operas like La traviata and encouraging their circulation among several co-producing institutions; reducing the size of the sets created; limiting long journeys by artistic teams … These are just some of the solutions being considered, suggesting a return to a form of sobriety at once economic and environmental.
‘We can calculate the impact of sets in terms of weight, price or size, but it’s the trajectory that counts if we want to reduce our CO2 emissions’, insists Etienne Andréys. ‘We gradually want to systematize our methods throughout the production chain, from the conception of the set to its realization. We still want to offer innovative shows of great quality, but we now have additional objectives that are just as imperative. Artists have always had to work with constraints. Today, however, we have to take account of a new factor, a constraint that didn’t exist before.’
For Fabien Teigné, the freedom that characterizes his profession is not in jeopardy in the face of the rigour gradually being imposed on opera. ‘The initial instructions have to be even stricter. We sometimes realize that some huge set elements are built for just a few minutes on stage … The expectations of the audience and the desires of scenographers are gradually going to move away from these practices. And new technologies are going make important contributions. New materials might be discovered, such as panels made from plant fibres to replace wood. I think these changes are going to occur naturally …’
The challenge facing our opera house and the entire live performance sector is to continue to inspire audiences while respecting the environment. Perhaps this will mark the advent of a new creativity, a new poetry.