BWW Interviews: Viva Las Vegas! Designer Christine Jones Sets the Stage for the Met's Rat Pack RIGOLETTO


If God is in the details, Christine Jones must certainly be praying at the right church.

As the scenic designer for the Metropolitan Opera's new RIGOLETTO, Jones has taken the concept that director Michael Mayer sold to the Met--the '60s Las Vegas of Sinatra's Rat Pack vs. the 16th century Mantua of the original--and flown it to the moon. The result is a smart production that is fun to watch and works visually even when certain directorial details--Rigoletto doesn't live up to his billing as a "Don Rickles-type"--seem tenuous.

It's hard to believe that such an assured production came from a newcomer to the Met, or that it came together as quickly as it did. Mayer invited Jones--along with costume designer Susan Hilferty, and lighting designer Kevin Adams--to come on board in August 2011 and the designs were due in December. Jones admits it was a daunting timetable.

A throw of the dice

"I didn't want my debut to be rushed," she says, but recalls starting to think about the design even before she even agreed to take on the production. It began with the use of neon lights as a key element: In Act I, the neon, so symbolic of the Vegas Strip, defines the look of the casino floor. By Act III, as the characters evolve--or, in Rigoletto's case, unravel--the neon appears in a different form, as an abstract design against the backdrop, to represent the lightning of the stormy conclusion.

Having worked with the other designers and Mayer on several Broadway shows, including her Tony Award turn on American Idiot as well as on Spring Awakening, helped stoke Jones's confidence. With ideas swirling around in her head and thoughts of working at "the Met" leading her forward, Jones eventually tossed the dice and, as it turns out, she was a natural.

To say that she was excited would be an understatement. "When we went up the red velvet staircase for our first meeting with Peter Gelb [the Met's General Manager], I had to keep pinching myself," she recalls. "I felt like I was in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and there was all this candy in front of me."

Challenges to face

Excitement aside, Jones found many challenges to face, even though they were tempered by working with a group of colleagues she knew and respected.

Translating the story. "Usually, when we start working on a show, we figure out things together. But since Michael had already sold the Met on the idea of the Rat Pack Rigoletto, that's where we started," she recalls. "There was one thing we all agreed on--making the story translatable from the original and not simply setting Vegas on top of it. We were very conscious of doing it right."

The Met's special rhythm. Then there was the matter of getting into the rhythm of working at the Met, where a dozen operas can be at some stage of production at a given time. Reality struck Jones after the tour of the facility, when she found that access to the house and to its phenomenal artisans was limited and that Team RIGOLETTO had to carve out its place in this universe. (In an interview with The New York Times, Mayer said he didn't get the singers and sets on stage until less than two weeks before the premiere, because of scheduling.)

A matter of scale. Working at a theatre the size of the Met also took getting used to, says Jones, because it has such a grand scale and is much larger than the theatres she has designed for in the past. But after she attended a number of operas--more than she'd seen in her whole life, she admits--with her eyes open to the way things work, she found it can be a surprisingly intimate space.

Handing over the design. Finally, there was handing over her "baby"--the scenic design--to the creative staff at the Met. Doug Lebrecht, the Met's Scenic Artist, coordinated the work of the model makers, painters, fabric people, the prop people, and so on, to "do their magic." "The dedication and investment in quality of all these people who work behind the scenes at the Met--who really co-created the production with us--make it a unique and extraordinary place," Jones explains.

The Met's artisans were of particular help in making details of the opera work with the HD broadcast in mind. Today's technology demands that everything look right, not from 400 feet (or even 40 feet) away but from 40 inches. All of the sets and props, including food being served and glasses thrown about the Duke's penthouse, as well as the costumes, had to be just right, so they don't hit a false note when it comes time for their close-ups on February 16.

She adds, "People were incredibly kind to us, about the enormity of the task of putting this new production together."

Psst. The soprano's in the trunk

I asked Jones about a couple of the more unusual demands that the opera's design made on Diana Damrau, the brilliant soprano who sings Gilda, the naïve daughter of Rigoletto. First, she is kidnapped and stuffed in a sarcophagus by the Duke's entourage so they can whisk her away from the casino. Later, she is stabbed at Sparafucile's roadhouse and locked in the trunk of a vintage, big-finned 1960s Cadillac, which will be used to dispose of her body. "I was surprised that Diana was so game to do everything we suggested," she admits.

Surely, the car was designed so that the soprano singing Gilda could sneak out until it was time for Rigoletto to discover her body? Surprisingly no--she stayed locked in the trunk until it was time for one last duet with her father. (As Jones said, Damrau was game.)

Does this mean that the Met will only engage singers for the role who are ready to take on these demands? Jones reveals that they've considered the options--body doubles, leaving Gilda outside the car, for example--for those more faint of heart than Damrau. But as it is right now, these elements work so well in the production that it would be hard for anyone not to put their money on every element of Jones's designs for the Met's new RIGOLETTO.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.