Tartans at the Opera: Interview and Review of the Pittsburgh Opera’s 'Ariodante'

This past Friday, the Pittsburgh Opera performed the famous composer George Frideric Handel’s lesser-known opera, "Ariodante." I had the pleasure of interviewing two Carnegie Mellon students who worked on the production's costume and scenic design. Below are excerpts from our interview, as well as my own thoughts on the opera itself.

Alison Zheng: Tell me a bit about yourself!
Grace Kang: I’m a third-year pursuing an MFA in costume design in the School of Drama. I used to work at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Ningning Yang: I’m a second-year MFA student studying scenic design.

AZ: What first inspired you to pursue your chosen major?
GK: I wasn’t involved in costumes until my undergraduate years, which was when I started to go to school for theatre. I didn’t have a focus at the time, but I reached a point where I was working enough with costumes that I eventually gravitated toward it. It was like a language I understood and connected to very easily — it made sense to me. It was a way for me to express personal identity, storytelling, and it made the most sense to me out of all the areas of design.
NY: Because I’ve always liked the visual arts but also enjoyed live performances, I decided to go with scenic design. I did fine arts in high school, as well as music and plays. I thought I should study scenic design as it was something that combined both. I first got into theatre because of musicals and plays, but then I started looking at operas. My favorite musical is currently "The Band’s Visit"!

AZ: How did you come across the opportunity to work with the Pittsburgh Opera?
GK + NY: The School of Drama has a relationship with the Opera, where they’ll pull students to do a production where they can come in and work. They haven’t had a costume designer for a long time either, so this was the perfect time to renew their relationship with the school. Every year students are given projects to design for a production. Our advisors reached out and asked if anyone was interested, which faculty then decided who would eventually design for the show.

AZ: What were your first impressions of "Ariodante"?
GK: My initial impression of the opera was that it was hard to understand and relate to, since the language is older and foreign. The director was great in terms of having meetings with the scenic and costume designers, going though themes and the theory behind how operas are written and produced. It helped to get a better appreciation of the show. Since "Ariodante" is an older opera, it also has a lot of dated themes, but the director tried to transform the themes into a slightly different narrative that was more modern and empowering. It was a great first opera experience, which I think scratched the surface of my beginning opera knowledge.
NY: I knew of Handel but not the opera. The story and plot are very old-school drama, and it doesn’t shed that much of a good light on women within the play. Once we read the play and talked to the director, they said they needed to do something about it. The princess, Ariodante’s wife, gets crowned at the end of the production, although the original production has it so that Ariodante is crowned instead. The ending is slightly altered, which I thought was nice.

AZ: What was your favorite costume/set to work on in the production?
GK: The main protagonist, Ginevra, the princess engaged to Ariodante. Maybe it’s because I empathize with her a lot, since she’s put in a situation where she’s framed for having cheated on her betrothed. Her father wants to imprison her for being a dishonest woman. There’s empathy toward her for being in a situation which she has no control over. She wears on main dress the whole show which was fun to design — it has a lot of elements and was hand-painted by someone with lots of trim added. There’s lots of layers of details there that I really enjoyed.
NY: The prison scene. The most bare-bone of the scenic design elements, there’s no extravagant lighting. It’s just basic.

AZ: Were there any difficulties or hurdles working as a full-time student during the production?
GK: Even though it’s a part of the curriculum, the demands of it can vary a lot. Students usually put as much as they can into it, which can be hard if you’re also taking classes. Since it isn’t through the school, you have to work with the opera’s schedule. Also, because the opera opened sooner than CMU, I had to a lose a part of my break. Tech week was the week that school started again, so it was challenging to be in the thick of something and jump between two projects. For the most part, you’re technically supposed to have time to do it all, but all designers put in much more hours than the units they’re usually assigned.

AZ: Do you have any advice for other students that may want to work in a similar field as you?
GK: The great thing about theatre is that you don’t need a strong background, but just an interest in it. Just a willingness to learn and get your hands dirty and make mistakes. I will say that to get into theatre, there’s a barrier of entry since theatre isn’t a well-paying field. In order to gain experience, most internships or apprenticeships are either not paying or not well-paid. The best place to get that experience is when you’re in high school and wanting to get involved in a school production. At CMU, there’s a lot of students outside the School of Drama that can get involved with productions. A lot of theatres in town offer student discounts. The other thing too is that if you’re interested in learning something, cold contacting people is a way to get your foot in the door for something. If they don’t get back to you, you don’t really lose anything. It’s relatively easy to get into theatre, it’s just economically, the barrier of entry.
NY: You have to really love it, because you don’t get paid that much. There are always skills that you require on the way, but if you’re passionate enough you can make a living and make yourself happy.

I’d like to thank Grace and Ningning once again for taking the time to interview with me! The partnership between Carnegie Mellon and the Pittsburgh Opera is one that goes far back, so it’s always interesting to see it from the perspective of the students working directly on the project.

"Ariodante" is a beautiful example of a Baroque Italian opera (think 1600s for this). The genre is certainly not one of my favorites, with other operas written by Handel feeling far more moving and steady-paced, but that is not to say that the actors of the Pittsburgh Opera didn’t do a wonderful job. In this production, we saw the comeback of "The Marriage of Figaro’s" Jazmine Olwalia as the titular Ariodante, and Evan Lazdowski (who I interviewed before! Go check it out) as Rè di Scozia, the King of Scotland. It’s always nice seeing a familiar face and hearing a familiar voice, so I was quite pleased with their performances. Being able to see the two actors’ versatility made the performance even more enjoyable.

Although set and costume design seemed more sparse than usual productions in at the Benedum Center, for this one was staged at CAPA Theatre, I thought the actors handled the small-scale stage with their usual grace. Even through the Italian man next to me would sing the arias alongside the actors off-key, their voices still resonated with each subtle emotion the characters were meant to feel. I have a slight distaste for the leitmotif that "Ariodante" uses, but even then, it was made palatable by the singing.

The standout performer of this production was definitely Chuanyuan Liu as Polinesso, the main antagonist. I’m quite biased toward good countertenors, so it made sense that Liu’s voice was something I automatically gravitated to. He pushed the emotions of Polinesso to the edge, which is also something that I’m always looking for in an opera. In a way though, I think antagonists are easier to portray, since visceral hate is a much more recognizable emotion than conflicted grief. It’s because of this fact that I think the other actors also did an amazing job at displaying that.

While the production has since ended, the Pittsburgh Opera will be performing "Il Trovatore," "Denis & Katya," and "We Shall Not Be Moved" for the rest of their 2022-2023 season. Student tickets are usually at least half-price! Make sure to see "Il Trovatore" from late March to early April — you won’t regret it.