Ralph Funicello Has ‘Designs’ on ‘Murder’

When award winning set designer, Ralph Funicello, first graced the San Diego Opera stage with designs for Don Quixote in 2009, he brought with him expertise gathered over years of designing productions throughout the U.S. and Canada. A San Diego resident, his impressive array of awards and kudos includes serving on the Scenography Commission of the International Organization of Scenographers and on the Theater Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts.

We are delighted to have the renowned designer back for the soon-to-be-premiered Murder In The Cathedral, and it was my honor to be interviewing him about it.

EM: When did you first develop an interest in set design?

RF: As a child I wasn’t really aware of anything creative. My own family was not artistic in any way, but I had a close friend whose father was an artist and teacher. He influenced me to become interested in drawing for the first time. There was an air of mystery about their house. My friend and I spent time in the attic, which smelled of old clothing, and we used to make costumes out of the clothes. I think the seeds were planted then as far as becoming interested in theater. And I loved puppetry and magic as a kid, but I had no real creative outlet until high school, when I got involved with theater, mostly Broadway musicals, which was so collaborative, so much fun. I started building scenery. In college I fell in love with design and decided to major in it without really knowing what it was, and discovered I had a talent for it.

EM: Who were your major influences in the field?

Ralph Funicello Photo: http://theatre.sdsu.edu

RF: My teachers were the great Ming Cho Lee and Wolfgang Roth, both of whom worked at the Met. Roth had worked with Brecht in Germany and had designed for the Met in the 40s. In 1969 I went to Berlin with Roth, met Brecht’s wife and daughter in Berlin, saw operas with outrageous, elaborate scenic effects. One opera by Janacek actually had effects that resembled the movie Up – if you can imagine such a thing. It all made a great impression on me. I came back and went to NYU to study and became a professional, working with Lee on the Shakespeare Festival at the Delacort Theatre in Central Park.

EM: Fascinating background. I remember admiring Lee’s gorgeous sets at the Met when I was there. When did SDO general director Ian Campbell first approach you about designing Murder In the Cathedral?

RF: I first spoke with Ian about the project about two years ago, so it’s been a slow journey, as opposed to Don Quixote in 2009, which happened very fast. With Murder I’ve had the chance to “sit” with it, take my time listening to the music and familiarizing myself with it, and read the T.S. Eliot play, which stays close to the libretto. But I tried to keep that in the background as I started to conceive my design. There’s a pacing and power in the music that you don’t have in the play. Ian does a great job with the supertitles – you really know what’s being said.

EM: You’ve designed for theater and for opera. What inspires you most about opera: the story or the music?

RF: It all starts with the story for me, but of course the music also inspires me.

EM: What attracted you to Murder In The Cathedral? Are you a history buff?

RF: I love all opera, historical or fictional.

EM: Having worked with Ferruccio Furlanetto on Don Quixote are you enjoying working with him again on Murder?

RF: Oh, yes. Ferruccio is a delightful man and an extraordinary singer. There is a special relationship between him and San Diego Opera; he enjoys working with us. He pretty much does his only stateside work with us, and the Met. He loves coming here. And he loves to golf!

EM: Had you been familiar with Pizzetti’s work before you signed on? If so, which pieces?

RF: I had never heard his music before until Ian gave me the CD of Murder. I admit it’s the only music of his I am familiar with.

EM: How would you characterize Pizzetti’s music? Does designing such a rarely performed work intrigue you?

RF: His music reminds me a lot of Puccini, very “Italian” in the best sense. Designing contemporary or “traditional” opera, deciding on the scale of the sets, comes down to the same question: Can the set and music exist together, and will music support the scale of the set?

EM: Do you approach designing a contemporary opera differently from a more “classical” work? In what ways does designing for a historical scenario differ from designing for fiction?

RF: I approach both of them the same way. We had to consider Becket’s part in history. You have to do your research, of course. But whether it has to be historically accurate or a more stylized concept all depends on the director’s vision. I always listen to the director first. I design the production the director wants. Some directors want the designer to drive, but that’s exceptional. For this opera, an “open” design seemed best. You can do anything on a bare stage. It was a question of Gothic vs. contemporary, spare vs. decorative. Banners of martyrs are a great effect. I had to research twelfth century art, what it looked like, the frescoes and tapestries. We had to make it look “old.” Color-wise we stayed neutral. The sense of richness comes from the stained glass, which is all about the lighting. The light in the Cathedral is very romantic. I took inspiration from the organ in Disney Hall for a “cathedral” effect. I started by cutting up wooden dowels to represent the pillars. It ended up looking like a forest, not the inside of a structure, and didn’t work for the piece. I almost threw everything out. Whatever you create, you have to decide if you really want to do it that way. (Director) John Conklin says that in theater you can completely create the world you want. That’s not necessarily a positive thing (laughs). Fortunately Ian and I are very much in synch on everything.

EM: How about traditional theater vs. opera? Do you have a preference for either one?

RF: I’m passionate about both, but I’ve done more theater than opera and have more confidence with it. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, so I’m aware of having to accommodate text in an opera like Romeo and Juliet. In opera it’s all about text and music. Not knowing opera as well, I’m more dependent on others. Everyone at SDO is so supportive and helpful. I’ve enjoyed doing Puccini’s La Rondine at New York City Opera. Recently I designed two contemporary one-act operas for L.A. Opera, Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”) and Der zebrochene Krug (“The Broken Jug”) that James Conlon had championed by Zemlinsky and Ullmann, two composers whose work was suppressed by the Nazis. One of them had a huge set with an elaborate mirrored room that resembled Versailles. The Dwarf took inspiration from the famous painting by Velázquez.

EM: What is a unit set? What made you decide on one for Murder In The Cathedral?

RF: A unit set is one set used for all of the scenes; it creates a different feeling for the props. Murder is written in a way that requires only one location: the Cathedral. In the early stages we had to decide where to put things, especially where to put the large chorus; they had to be able to see the conductor. In the end, choir stalls took up too much space. We didn’t include them or the open square in front of the Cathedral. We could tell certain parts of the story with curtain effects; for instance the light pouring through it to show the stained glass.

EM: Did you actually visit the Cathedral at Canterbury to get an authentic in-person view of the “Becket” window?

RF: Ian’s been to Canterbury recently. I hadn’t visited there since I first saw it in the 1960s but went back during a trip to Britain a year ago to photograph the windows, since I couldn’t find any high resolution images. I knew what the set would be like; I wanted to reinforce that I was doing the right thing. I’ve always been struck by the unique design of the crypt. It’s quite different from the usual – located halfway down from the altar instead of in the basement – and there are windows to let in light as opposed to the usual complete darkness of a crypt. Of course, very little is left of what was there when Becket was there. It was all rebuilt several times.

EM: When designing for the opera, is there a close collaboration between you and the conductor? How does this relationship compare with, for example, that with the director?

RF: Generally not nearly as close; but in the case of James Conlon, since the music was so unfamiliar to the audience the collaboration was closer than usual. He was very straightforward about what approach he wanted, which made it easier.

EM: Ralph, thank you so much for your insights and for giving us a bit of a “preview” of what we will be seeing on stage. We are all eagerly anticipating the premiere.

RF: So am I – and you’re very welcome.

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