Geneva Anderson digs into art

interview: Bay Area artist Naomie Kremer shares how her gardens grow—she created the digital sets for the new opera “The Secret Garden,” at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall through Sunday, March 10, 2013

Naomie Kremer, visual designer "The Secret Garden," photo" courtesy Naomie Kremer

Naomie Kremer, visual designer “The Secret Garden,” photo” courtesy Naomie Kremer

San Francisco’s Opera’s new opera for its spring season, “The Secret Garden,” which had its world premiere last Friday in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is an exciting adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Directed by Jose Maria Condemi with music by Petaluma composer Nolan Gasser, libretto by Carey Harrison, and visual design by multimedia artist Naomie Kremer, the entire project has been captivating since its inception.   Following in the footsteps of its visually intoxicating 2012 production of “The Magic Flute,” the SFO’s first opera to fully incorporate digital projection technology, this co-production with Cal Performances also fully capitalizes on digital technology for its set design. Video technology has moved opera in a new direction—visual design, always thought to be somewhat static and subservient to the musical component, now has the chance be dynamic and just as compelling as the music.  Naomie Kremer created all of “The Secret Garden’s” digitally-projected sets—a prologue and 13 scenes—and she agreed to talk about what went into visually styling this two hour production.

Written in 1910, the timeless story is about a spoiled young girl who finds herself alone in a bleary and unfamiliar land, until she discovers the hidden wonder of a secret garden and experiences the healing power of nature.  While it has been adapted to the stage and screen many times, the classic struck SF Opera general director David Gockley as perfect for opera and in 2010, he began to talk publicly of developing it as a family opera.  Naomie Kremer captured his attention with her masterful one hour video backdrop for the Berkeley Opera Company’s 2008 production of Béla Bartok’s 1918 opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” (A kékszakállú herceg vára).   This was the painter’s first stab at video projected stage design but, based on its strength, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins invited Kremer to create a video backdrop for Light Moves,” a production of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company involving a synthesis of dance, live music, poetry, animation and recurring cycles of light, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in November 2011.

Partly because of the success of Light Moves, Gockley’s attention turned to Kremer again when The Secret Garden opera was developed, and he asked her to submit a proposal.  Soon after, she was hired to do the entire visual design for the production.

ARThound first discovered Naomie Kremer last September through her detailed FAMSF (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) blog posts where she wrote about using FAMSF portraits in the opera’s set design to “hint at Mary’s venerable family made up of generations of proud landowners and beautiful women.”  For the pivotal scene where Mary hears moaning sounds and decides to explore the hallway, she planned to line a dark and flickering hallway with portraits of William Turner by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Kilderbee (ca 1757) by Thomas Gainsborough.  “Making this video set, I knit together a fabric to support the action of this opera,” wrote Kremer.  “The play between reality and fantasy, realism and surrealism, is fluid and wide open.  My goal is to stretch reality but not so much that the fabric tears”   Indeed, that very elasticity, is what makes digital sets so intoxicating. 

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The Secret Garden had its world premiere last Friday (March 1, 2013) to a sold out house and I had the privilege of talking with Naomie Kremer about her otherworldly digital set designs. Below is our conversation—

Give us an overview of what you were responsible for and the types of materials you used as source materials.

Naomie Kremer: As the visual designer, I was in charge of all aspects of the set design, including the props.  This is my first assignment for SF Opera.  They contacted me in July 2011, I presented a proposal in November 2011, and was hired at the beginning of 2012.  I started shooting video right away.  It’s really been a long and involved process which morphed as I was working on it.  I started by creating a lot of raw material— footage that I shot in England, Spain, France, here (CA) and New York, a few things from the Internet, some of my own paintings, and portraits lent by the FAMSF—and then, I began to mix manipulate it all.  My process involves layering a lot of different content to arrive at a slightly unreal vision that you would not see in the real world but that is familiar.  I call that “enhanced realism.”

What are some previous productions that you’ve worked on and some techniques that you’ve developed that you apply to digital design?  

NK: This is my third experience with set design. It all started with Béla Bartok’s“Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the Berkeley Opera Company’s did in 2008.  It’s a one hour opera, notoriously hard to stage because the story involves seven doors that open onto 7 completely different worlds that include a torture chamber, a garden, “the realm.”  I was introduced to Jonathon Khuner, director of the Berkeley Opera, by the composer Paul Dresher.  I showed Khuner some of my painting animations, and he invited me to do a video-based set for Bluebeard.  He didn’t expect me make it as comprehensive as I did—I basically did a one-hour music video, with a continuous flow of moving visuals, essentially turning Bluebeard’s Castle itself into an actor in the production.

It was a consuming process that took nine months.  The visual design was very well received, and I was very intrigued with the process and the results.  I ended up with many many hours of footage and content that was not used, and it led me to develop a whole new body of work that I call “hybrid paintings.”  

These “hybrid” works consist of paintings or works on paper onto which I project video, transforming them into mysterious, luminous objects that challenge our perception of surface, space, depth, and materiality through a hybrid of painting and video.  I think of the experience as one that “both orients and disorients.  The viewer is uncertain which part is paint and which is projection until the spot where the gaze is resting starts to move.  I’m interested in the ambiguity of the relationship between projection and reality, stillness and motion. The stillness is that of the painted canvas.  The motion is an animation I create, sometimes by selecting and choreographing segments of a finished painting, sometimes by manipulating video footage.  All of that came out of working on Bluebeard’s Castle.

Margaret Jenkins saw the opera, as well as my hybrid paintings in an exhibition at Modernism (my gallery in San Francisco), and became intrigued with the idea of creating a hybrid of dance and video.  She invited me to do a set for the work that became Light Moves, which premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in November, 2011, and subsequently toured to Maryland and Chicago.

When you heard about the opera, what’s the first image that popped up for you visually?

NK: Many images came into my head. I traveled in India in my early 20s, and this story begins in India. I also lived in England for three years subsequent to that trip, and had strong visuals in my mind of English gardens, with their incredible, softly lit lushness.  And, of course, the importance of identifying a forbidding, almost haunted manor house, of which there are many in England!

The thing I was always looking for in shooting footage for the opera was movement. Without it, you would think you’re just looking a photograph—so wind and rain and weather were a very important component. The importance of motion to the set can’t be under-estimated. I think it’s critical to simulating reality, because in the real world there is always motion in our peripheral vision, whether or not we are aware of it. But I wanted the motion not to be so compelling that we are distracted from the action on the stage. There was a balance to be struck.

What role did music play in this for you and in your visual choices?  Since Nolan Gasser was in the process of writing the music and everything was coming together at once, how did that work? Were there particular pieces of the opera, or instruments, or natural sounds that were particularly important?

NK: The music was not done until December 2012, and I had to have most of the video long before that.  But the atmospherics of the music were definitely in my mind as I put together the imagery.  I had parts of the music to refer to, and I felt instinctively that my own snippets— the content that I was gathering—would work with the rhythms and sonorities of Nolan Gasser’s score.  Once I heard the music played by the orchestra (which didn’t happen till the rehearsals began in February!) I was delighted with the instrumentation and how well it worked with the visual rhythms I had created.

Were there particular images that you prepared for specific instrument solos?

NK: The appearance of the robin was always associated with a certain musical passage. Intricate cuing is required to make the video and the stage action and the music come together at critical moments.  The sets have to perform over the whole course of a scene, so I had to stay very sensitive to the coordination of the music, the stage action and the video.

The robin is key to the novel. How does that play out in the opera?

NK: The robin was my biggest challenge, because you just can’t stage direct robins.  In a funny coincidence, a robin built a nest in the courtyard at my house a couple of years ago, and laid gorgeous blue eggs (I wasn’t aware robin’s eggs were blue!).  I shot lots of video of that, but it wasn’t quite the action needed for The Secret Garden. Then, I discovered a grove in Central Park populated by a whole bunch of tame robins, so they didn’t run away as I approached to videotape them.  Then, one day it dawned on me to Google English robins and I found out that they look completely different than American robins, so I wasn’t able to use any of the footage I had!  In desperation, I went to the internet and found some footage that I was then able to modify by deleting the extraneous background content.

How does the ability to paint a scene with digital media change things for you as an artist?   Before you had very static sets, painted on boards, and used limited props.  Of course, you can still have the best of those but you’ve got this whole other element that brings unlimited opportunities. 

NK: It’s incredibly exciting and it’s wide open.  You can really visualize and paint a whole world, constructing it from different locations, using diverse content to invent a scene that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.  It’s an incredible extension of the medium of painting.

The garden is of course KEY to the unfolding and mystery of the story.  What were specific inspirations for the garden you created both time-wise and the style of garden you created?  Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Victorian looking back at the Romantic-era gardens which were so wild and poetic.  How did you approach this?

NK: I travelled quite a bit in the course of the past year.  I had to come up with two gardens—the house garden, which is the one that is first seen when Mary goes out to play, and the secret garden, which she discovers later.  I wanted to make the house garden appear distinctly different from the secret garden and was looking for a formal and very structured garden to use.  I ended up videotaping in Grenada at the Alhambra, as well as in Yorkshire, and a combination of the two became the formal garden.  For the secret garden, I traveled to Norfolk and Yorkshire in England, as well as videotaping in my own and friends’ gardens. I then created video collages of this footage.  The secret garden also needed several versions.  When Mary first discovers it, it’s overgrown, seemingly dead. Then, it transitions into early springtime and ultimately into full bloom in the final scene.  I masked out certain areas of content in the video and reinserted paintings that I had done so there’s a look that you could not achieve by simply videotaping. To create specific moods and seasonal changes I used color and light. 

I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly.  Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors.  I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.

As in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I am struck by the contrast in this story between these dark repressive interiors and the bright and vital outdoors.  And that’s what heals the little boy, coming out into the light and the garden air.  How do you handle those contrasts and mood shifts in the opera?

NK: I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly.  Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors.  I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.

You’ve included several portraits from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection to hint at Mary’s venerable family.  Can you talk about a scene where these are particularly important for setting a mood. 

NK: There’s a particular scene where Mary decides to venture out into the hallway to investigate this mysterious wailing sound that she hears, which no one will explain except to say it is the sound of the moors.  It was interesting to me to try to create some sense of family history in that hallway and to capture that foreboding mood, so I have the hallway lined with venerable family portraits.  To emphasize the progress she’s making, it’s scrolling by as she walks, and to set the mood for this slightly scary journey, it distorts and kind of comes out at her.

You’ve been working in fragments, visual fragments for some time…When did you first see your work joined with the music and what was your reaction? 

NK: I was very pleased…It really all came together quite recently, basically when it was in rehearsal.  Before that, I had to hold all these fragments together in my head, though I created detailed storyboards as reference points.   

The last step was to program the video the MBOX, a performance management system which permits the video to be cued to the stage action.  I worked with the team over the past month to adjust brightness, contrast, speed, and so forth so when that the opera’s live the content matches what’s happening on stage.  It’s quite complicated!

Naomi Kremer’s exhibition “Sightlines”— An exhibition of Naomie Kremer’s artwork is on display work at Modernism Gallery, 685 Market Street, San Francisco, through April 27, 2013. For more information, call 415.541.0461

DETAILS:  There are 2 remaining performances of “The Secret Garden,” Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall.  Tickets:  The Sunday matinee is sold out.  There is limited availability for Saturday evening.  Tickets start at $30.  To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.

Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.  

Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.  

Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain.  Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays

March 9, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment