Small-city constraints spur design innovation, cooperation

Cast members rehearse for Opera To Go’s production of "Bennu" at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium Tuesday.

When New York City artist Paul Spadone got the call asking if he’d be interested in doing costumes and sets for “Bennu,” an original children’s opera written by Rory Merritt Stitt, his “yes” came very easily.


Spadone had worked with Stitt before, on Perseverance Theatre productions including “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Tommy” and “Hair,” as well as with Betsy Sims, Juneau’s resident sound expert and the producer of “Bennu.” And, as is the case with many visiting artists who initially come for the novelty of the Alaskan experience, he discovered Juneau to be a stimulating environment for creating art.

Spadone, whose costume work includes major Hollywood productions including the “Spiderman” movies and Robert Downey Jr.’s “The Soloist,” was also intrigued by Stitt’s script and archetypical characters, which he felt offered an opportunity for many different types of interpretation.

“As I told Rory, it has a very wide imaginative scope,” Spadone said. “I had the sense that there was a huge range of possibility, of what the worlds would be, what references we could draw on. In fact, I think because it’s very open, it sort of asks to draw on many different references, both historical and geographic.”

The opera tells the story of young Bennu, a child whose singing sounds like nonsense to others but which carries an undeniable power. While on a journey of self-discovery, he meets an evil king and queen who want to keep his song for themselves but is helped by a princess who encourages him to believe in himself. (See feature story in this week’s Arts.) The all-ages show debuts Saturday at the Juneau Douglas High School auditorium.

Working on an opera in Juneau is no less demanding than working on a Hollywood film, Spadone said. The main difference is that in Juneau the work is much more hands-on — an aspect which Spadone enjoys.

“It has more of an all-hands-on-deck, labor-of-love energy behind it — but that doesn’t make it any less serious,” he said.

This seems especially true with “Bennu,” which is a brand new work commissioned by Opera to Go’s William Todd Hunt. Stitt has been working on the project for the past several years, and Spadone came on board about six months ago.

“There’s a sense that everyone is committed to the project, and is committed to trying to articulate the vision — a very generous and ambitious vision — that I think lends an excitement and sense of possibility to the show,” Spadone said. “Because you don’t have a huge machine at work putting the show up, everyone’s commitment means so much more to it. I think that’s why I love coming up and doing shows here. Because there’s a real investment in the project that is directly related to everyone who is participating in it. It’s more human and it’s tangible.”

The project also offered an opportunity for Spadone to incorporate his set and costume experience with his strong interest in painting; last year he completed a three-year course of study at the The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. With Bennu, he’s painted the backdrops as well as paintings that will be projected onto walls and screens in front of and behind the sets.

“Betsy and Rory really wanted me to bring the aesthetic of my paintings to the whole project, so a lot of what we’ve done in terms of the scenic design is to incorporate original paintings for the backdrops that are designed for the show, but they are paintings in their own right.”

The background images will be based on a series of small watercolors Spadone created for the production. He said the overall effect is that of an illustrated children’s book.

“It’s almost as if I’m illustrating the story as opposed to trying to be representational,” he said.

The painted sets have been mounted on something called “periaktos” — from a Greek word meaning “revolving” — which in this case entails triangular-shaped constructions, each with a different painted scene on one of the three faces. By turning the triangle, a different scene is revealed to the audience (and the others are obscured). Spadone created several large periaktoi for each scene that are rotated together to change the set.

He’s also created the designs for the costumes for the four principal characters — the king, queen, princess and Bennu — turning the construction over to Perseverance costume veterans Valerie Snyder (who also plays in the orchestra) and Susan Oshida, who both work out of the Brown Boots Costume Company in Douglas. Spadone brought much of the fabric with him from New York.

“I brought a whole suitcase of fabric. And I’m subsequently wearing the same sweater and pants for two weeks,” he laughed.

Spadone, who has a masters in costume and sets from Yale University’s School of Drama, said he focused on a folkloric feel for “Bennu,” drawing inspiration from Bavarian and Nordic folk costumes, with an emphasis on color.

“I think the whole show is going to have a very strong, vibrant, colorful feel,” he said.

Spadone will be in town for the weekend, then it’s back to New York where he’s been doing costume work with Disney Cruise Lines and some regional theaters.

Chances are, he’ll be back.

“I love coming up here, so we’ll see.”

“Bennu” runs Feb. 22-March 1 at Juneau Douglas High School Auditorium.

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