Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Opera: Words made flesh

A designer's poetic inspiration

For Dany Lyne theatre design is like child’s play. After all, as a kid growing up in Montreal, she filled her parents’ basement with elaborate 3-D creations she constructed with the leftover coloured paper, cardboard and felt pens her father brought home from his print shop and office supply business.

“It was all a bit mad,” she says with a laugh. “I guess it still is.”

These days, Lyne doesn’t need to work with cast-off materials. With a body of work that includes set and costume designs for the Canadian Opera Company (COC), De Vlaamse Opera in Belgium, the Cincinnati Opera, Britain’s Opera North and the Stratford Festival, she commands big budgets and has teams of people helping her realize an artistic vision she calls “emotional realism.”

“What matters to me is not what the audience sees, but how the audience feels.”

Opera, with its dizzying emotional highs and lows, feeds her aesthetic temperament. “I’m a metaphor junkie. And opera, the language and the music, demands a poetic approach to image.”

For Lyne design all begins with language. Early in the process she will spend up to two weeks simply reading and rereading the text, spending her initial discussions with the director solely on the words. “I’m a visual artist, yet it’s writers whom I hold in the highest esteem. There is nothing – nothing! – better than a good book and, as a visual person, I feel so lucky to be inspired by language.”

If Lyne can be considered to have a trademark style it’s unconventional, simple and stark with one high-impact statement. For Lyne’s opera debut, the Queen Of Puddings production of Mad For All Reasons in 1996, she dressed the singers in silk drapings and tight bathing suits. Her set for COC’s 2000 production of Pélleas et Mélisande featured a huge, moveable bridge and a scrim covered in Jackson Pollock-style paint drippings.

The success of those acclaimed productions has made Lyne one the busiest and most sought after designers in Canada. On the heels of her triumphant design for Peter Hinton’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods at Stratford this summer (Hinton apparently described Lyne’s work as “Pieter Bruegel meets Maurice Sendak”), she has two productions opening within weeks of each other at the COC.

For the season opener, Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi, she and director Nicholas Muni have imagined a more sympathetic Lady Macbeth than is usually brought to stage. This time, sung by Hungarian soprano Georgina Lukács in her COC debut, she’s an oppressed woman struggling in a repressive, sexist, warrior society. The opera opens on a scene of identically dressed women busily knitting baby booties. Lyne has also turned the trappings of gender upside down by cheekily dressing all the men in skirts. The title role is shared by Pavlo Hunka and Vittorio Vitelli.

For Tim Albery’s October production of Rodelinda, George Frederic Handel’s story of marital devotion and fidelity, Lyne says she faced the problem of filling a huge stage with an opera that has so few characters. “But then I realized the story is about losing the love of your life – that feeling is so big I could use it.” Lyne ended up creating two levels on stage. The one below is a surreal, early 20th-century Chekovian world, “and the space above is the pain.”

Lyne is so passionate about her work that it’s a surprise to learn that she accidentally fell into design in art school, having had no particular background or interest in theatre or opera. “I think I went to see South Pacific once at [Montreal’s] Place des Arts, but that was it.”

She arrived in Toronto in the mid-1980s to attend the Ontario College Of Art (now the Ontario College Of Art And Design). Using the skills she picked up in her father’s print shop, she supported herself as a graphic designer, running a small font design company. “I didn’t receive a single loan or grant. So I went to school part-time, in the evenings and did my class work on the weekends.”

In 1986, after several false starts studying architecture, interior design and fashion, Lyne took a three-week theatre course with Paul Baker, an English scholar with a passion for opera. (Baker died four years ago.)

“As soon as he started to talk about the Greeks, I lost my mind. Paul was so articulate and inspiring. By lunch, I realized I was falling in love – with writing, with theatre – and I was enamoured with Paul as a friend and as a teacher. When it came to the arts he was a sponge. Films, theatre, opera, music, literature – he drank it all in.”

At the end of the course, Lyne took Baker aside and told him, “I think my life is about to change.”

“He just smiled and said, ‘Would you like some tea?’ And that became a ritual for us. We had a lot of great conversations over tea.”

Baker became a mentor to Lyne. He’d screen for her theatrical gems on tape like Zoe Caldwell in Medea at the Lincoln Center – “I was completely transported” – and assigned her a reading list of the classics. “Shakespeare almost killed me, but it did improve my English.”

It was then that she realized that her true calling was set and costume design. “Paul took me to see Idomeneo at the Hummingbird Centre. [Visionary opera designer] Michael Levine had done the show. I took one look and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I mean, I had never really thought that realism was my bag. Theatre design was perfect for me.”

She studied with Baker for seven years before heading to the Banff Centre For The Arts for a year’s residency and then to the University Of Victoria for a Master’s degree in theatre design. It was connection she made there with guest director Jeannine Labermont that led to her first big gig: designing Twelfth Night for the Canadian Stage Company, earning Lyne her first of many Dora nominations (she won in 1997 for The Attic, The Pearls And Three Fine Girls, directed by Alisa Palmer).

Despite the early acclaim, she spent the next five years struggling. “Financially, it wasn’t a great career choice. I was in my 30s, so I wasn’t as carefree as someone younger might have been. I rode my bike everywhere, from show to show. On the 27th of every month I’d be worrying about how to pay the next month’s rent. But I couldn’t think of what else I could do. I so admired Michael Levine and Robert LePage. I hungered to be as good as that. All I wanted to do was work as hard I could so that one day I could collaborate with people like that.”

Lyne did end up assisting Levine on a production of La Bohème, learning from him, as she says she does in all her creative and collaborative relationships. “The process of working with someone, especially a director, is profound. We spend days and nights together in a private, particular place that initially is just for us.” She gives great credit to her partner of nine years for being supportive during these times. “She’s seen it all,” Lyne says, “and she’s a writer, so she understand the creative process.

“Working with someone is a love affair. It’s like being married. But we’re not monogamous. Because at the end of this intense time, it’s over. We have to move on to other people in order to grow and change. So we say goodbye and kiss each other on the cheek and promise to work together again.”