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Build, Maestro
Frank Gehry designs sets for LA Philharmonic's Don Giovanni.
Autumn deWilde

One reason Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of the world’s finest is that, unlike its predecessor, it was designed strictly as a symphonic venue, with no accommodation for theater or opera. But lacking a fly loft, proscenium, curtain, orchestra pit, or wings, and with limited stage area and lighting possibilities, it is spectacularly unsuited for the dramatic arts.

But that hasn’t stopped the L.A. Philharmonic from branching out into opera, with a fully staged production last month of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Sets were designed by the hall’s architect, Frank Gehry.

Upon entering the hall, one immediately saw a layered black backdrop and a dense foreground of clustered white sculptural forms, with an elevated orchestra platform in between.  Gehry said that the foreground and backdrop were not meant to be symbolic, but the white elements, some as tall as nine feet, have been described as marble, waves, and icebergs.  They resembled clusters of people in white robes, and the dark background evoked the Commendatore, a murdered basso nobleman turned into a reanimated stone statue.


Executing the evocative white and black sculptures was not easy.  Designed in model form by crumpling paper, they were built onstage by Gehry’s staff using 80 rolls of nine-foot wide paper hung on concealed wooden frames. In the end, Gehry said the executed set “did not look like the model at all.”  And because some of the singers physically interacted with the sculptures, about a fifth of them had to be repaired and reshaped after each performance.

The architect, who worried that most architects “overdo it” when designing for theater, called the process “a very valiant experiment.” He added, “the director (Christopher Alden) had neophyte crazies (Gehry and costume designers Rodarte) to work with.  It was bold and instructive.”  The eighty-something Gehry particularly admired the spirit of the philharmonic’s twenty-something music director, Gustavo Dudamel.  “He’s an experimenter. He’ll jump off cliffs.”

The Philharmonic’s pairing of Mozart with architects will continue with Jean Nouvel taking on The Marriage of Figaro next year, and Zaha Hadid doing Cosi Fan Tutte in 2014.

John Pastier