Passion behind the scenes

In his long career, one of the most important Italian set decorators and head of La Scala's laboratory has given life to extraordinary scenery

My parents would have preferred me to become an architect. But ever since I was a child, I have always enjoyed making big drawings and playing with puppets and costumes. So becoming a set designer came almost naturally. My career at La Scala began after a short experience as assistant costumier for the show Barbablù at the Piccolo Teatro of Milan. I was in my third year at the Accademia di Brera when my professor of scenography, the architect Tito Varisco who was also Director of Stage Engineering at the Teatro alla Scala, proposed me to gain working experience at the theatre’s scenery laboratory. That is how, in October 1972, I stepped through the little gate of the workshop in via Baldinucci 85. The first weeks were disappointing. I was assigned a repetitive and dull task, attaching large tulle leaves onto a backdrop. Far from fulflling my aspiration of painting large scenery, I began to wonder if I had made the wrong decision. What made me change my mind were the chief stage designers, who gave me increasingly important and gratifying duties. The first two years were tough, since I had to reconcile my attendance at the Accademia with my commitment at the workshop. But although I worked up to ten hours a day, the new experience was helping me focus my course of study. For the frst six years I trained in building techniques under La Scala’s chief set designers Gino Romei, Gianni Bellini, Ludovico Sommaruga and Giorgio Cristini, and external set designers like Arturo Benassi, Ettore Rondelli and Fulvio Lanza. In 1978 I received my frst assignment for the stage scenes of La storia di un soldato directed by Dario Fo, who also designed set and costumes. I was at once thrilled and terrifed of making a mistake, and for the frst few days I was having nightmares about the set falling apart. But everything went well and Maestro Fo himself complimented me on my work. During those years I made other experiences in private workshops, which enriched my professional background and allowed me to gain also organisational skills, elaborating timescales and calculating costs, spaces and so on. In 1987 I was appointed head scene painter and I produced the scenery for the ballet La Sylphide, entirely painted on tulle. I think that my contribution to scenography lies in my capability to interpret the artwork, suggesting textures and materials that often vary from one artist to another. An example was creating the curtain for the opera Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights directed by Bob Wilson; Bob congratulated me because I did not blindly copy his set design, but I interpreted his style, giving the effect of his pastel strokes. Indeed, after that experience he asked me to recreate some of his works on a large scale.

I have always shared my knowledge with my assistants and co-workers and I have tried to transmit the traditional techniques of theatrical scene painting to the younger generations, in a constant process of renewal and innovation, since stage decoration is no longer limited to simple two-dimensional scenes on canvas and it incorporates increasingly cinematographic three-dimensional elements. With the advent of scenic construction, the set designer’s role has changed too: no longer solely a scene painter, but also a skilled technician in the development of large-scale drawings of the stage set, in order to facilitate its construction. For a theatre season in the 1960s we used 5 to 7 cubic metres of wood and 20,000 to 25,000 square metres of canvas, often recycled from previous sets. In the 1980s and 1990s, we used between 70 and 100 cubic metres of wood, 2 to 3 tonnes of metal and only 10,000 square metres of canvas. I am proud of the many sets I have created: La Clemenza di Tito, La Traviata, and La Dama di Picche (1989); Idomeneus (1990); Fra Diavolo and Lucia di Lammermoor (1991). What I will never forget, however, is the recognition of my professional achievements that I received from famous set designers: Luciano Damiani, Ezio Frigerio, Franco Zeffrelli, Dante Ferretti, Pierluigi Pieralli, Pier Luigi Pizzi and Mauro Carosi. I was appointed Director of Stage Engineering in 1992. This brief but intense experience was the occasion to work with Maestro Riccado Muti. Returning to the workshop, I produced the scenes for Romeo e Giulietta, Il Flauto Magico and Macbeth. In 1996 I produced the sets for Giselle from the sketches by Alessandro Benois, transforming the paintings with special techniques to make them look more realistic. In 1997 I designed and produced the sets for La Gioconda, a project for which I drew on all my professional experience and managed to combine traditional painting with other materials. In 1998 I was appointed director of the stage design workshop, which was still in the old site in the area of Bovisa. The workshop was then moved to its current and more practical site in via Bergognone, in the former Ansaldo buildings. In the new premises the workshop has three times the space and with the departments all close to each other, the production process is much easier. My role changed from operational to managerial. No more brushes and paints, but letters, meetings, managing staff and purchases. During that period, I rediscovered my creative streak, designing numerous sets for many theatres including La Scala: Ugo, Conte di Parigi, Il Bacio della Rosa, Immemoria and various ballets. Teaching at the Accademia della Scala has allowed me to pass on my experience to the students and to assist them in their placement. Having approached the end of my career, my desire to hand down my technical skills and artistic knowledge is stronger than ever.


Il Bel Mestiere. Artigiani e maestranze nel teatro d’opera by Clizia Gurrado and Laila Pozzo is the latest volume produced by the Fondazione Cologni in the “Mestieri d’Arte” series (Marsilio Editori): an act of love and a tribute to the master craftsmen who, day by day, construct with unparalleled skill and passion the success of Italian opera houses. A craft that is esteemed and respected worldwide, and a real feather in the cap of Italy’s artistic and artisanal tradition. Across a multifaceted universe of skills and talents, the authors guide the reader on an exclusive journey behind the scenes of the opera, to meet the professional fgures that create rich and complex productions in a variety of contexts and departments: from set design to carpentry and mechanics; from sculpture to thermoforming, from dressmaking to make-up, hair and costumes, to the actual building of the stage set. Mastercraftsmen and technicians who share the same commitment and spirit of sacrifce, working in the magical synergy that gives life to a show, to bring illusion and emotion on stage every evening. The theatre is an extremely delicate and complex machine that hides a perfect and fnely tuned orchestration, in which everything has a place and a time. Night after night, the theatre “works”, almost by magic. Yet it is not magic, but extreme competence, enthusiasm and total dedication, as this multiple narrative beautifully demonstrates.