The splendour of ancient Egypt is scattered across the floor of a cavernous sound stage at Three Mills Island, an East London film studio. In an adjacent studio, the kids from Popstars are cutting their first video. But here, in chilly Studio 5, the singers and technicians are rehearsing Aida, Giuseppe Verdi’s exotic opera, flanked by huge fibreglass sphinxes and animal-like “god heads” on poles. Beautiful divas waft around, wrapped in scarves and leggings, warbling distractedly. I’m not sure if they’re doing their exercises, or if it’s the real thing.
It’s hard to believe there are only two more weeks before Aida opens at the Royal Albert Hall, but no doubt it’ll be alright on the night. The designer David Roger, a big friendly bear of a man with an unruly mop of hair, takes me over to see his model of the set and explains how he has grown to love working at the Royal Albert Hall. Aida will be the third opera he has designed there for director David Freeman and producer Raymond Gubbay. The others were Tosca (1999) and Madam Butterfly (2000).
“It’s a strange space for a designer, because there isn’t a lot you can do in the way of flats or backdrops. But I love the amphitheatre feel to it. For me it has a greater dramatic intensity than the conventional proscenium arch stages. You learn to make the architecture work for you,” Roger explains.
On all three operas he has started with the floor. For Tosca, he based the floorcloth on the ceiling of St Peter’s in Rome – “all gruesome Catholic imagery”, while Butterfly was set on a shimmering lake (real water) with little bridges crossing to a house. After the heroine was abandoned by her lover, the water drained away to reveal a stony Zen garden. The floorcloth for Aida, measuring 27m by 18m, is based on the ceiling of an Egyptian temple Roger visited while he was researching this assignment. It depicts the Egyptian view of the cosmos and the signs of the zodiac in gold and lapis lazuli.
“When you go up the Nile at night, all you can see are beautiful palm trees along the
banks, and this great dome of stars above. It’s not hard to imagine why they believed in the cosmos. They spent their entire lives in preparation for death by creating a map of heaven on earth. They built all their sacred places to mirror the arrangement of the constellations,” says Roger.
This obsession with the rituals of death, many of which are depicted on the floorcloth, is epitomised by the 8m statue of Ptah, the God of Creation, wrapped in a shroud and lying in a shallow grave. One of the most dramatic moments in the opera is the lifting of Ptah from his grave, symbolising the raising of the dead.
The amount of research invested by Roger in the months prior to rehearsals is staggering. The most avid egyptologist will be hard put to fault his scholarship and attention to detail. “It helps to have an academic approach if you’re a stage designer,” Roger says. “You need knowledge of architecture, fashion, the history of art, and you have to be able to analyse texts to know how you’re going to represent them on stage.” It is not surprising to learn that Roger has a strong academic background, having read German and Scandinavian studies at Newcastle, before teaching for three years in Paris.
It was while he was in Paris in his early twenties that he started designing for the stage, although he says he was already “a design geek” as a child back home in Edinburgh, making little sets for operas he’d heard on Radio 3. Realising that designing was something he would like to do for a living, he applied to the small but prestigious Motley theatre design course in London. They asked to see examples of his work and, desperate to impress, Roger bombarded them with models from three operas. “There were two directors of the course, Percy Harris and Hayden Griffen, and they did a kind of nice and nasty double act. Griffen played the nasty one and he took one look at my stuff and told me I’d be better off staying as a teacher, while Percy was quite encouraging. So I came away convinced they’d turn me down,” says Roger.
In fact, he was accepted and is the only one of his year still working in set design. To help pay his way, Roger worked as a stagehand and flyman at the Royal Court Theatre, acquiring not only solid backstage experience but useful contacts. By the mid-1980s he was designing shows for the shoestring fringe company Soho Poly in a converted basement garage in London’s West End. Then, out of the blue, he was taken on as assistant designer of Le Grand Macabre, an opera about the end of the world, to be staged by the Freiburg State Opera in Bavaria. “The main designer promptly quit and I was left on my own, directing this huge opera in German, having only worked on tiny fringe shows up to that point. It was the ultimate baptism of fire,” Roger admits.
Fifteen years on, Roger still enjoys the contrast of grand operas such as Aida and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which he tackles next for the Kirov Opera, and smaller fringe shows, or the student productions he undertakes for the London Academy of Dramatic Arts, for a nominal fee.
Though he has worked on a wide range of theatre projects, including ballet, the professional partnership he keeps coming back to is with director Freeman, founder-director of the now defunct Opera Factory, and director of all three Albert Hall spectaculars. “David has done more than anyone to merge opera with theatre,” says Freeman. “When he started Opera Factory in Zurich in the mid-1980s, there was little crossover between opera, ballet and straight theatre. He was the first to do opera at places like the Drill Hall and the Royal Court. The first one I worked on was Tippett’s The Knot Garden and we had so little money, we constructed the set out of stacking chairs in the rehearsal room. We made them into a maze, which was appropriate to the story,” he adds.
Roger doesn’t confine himself to one medium. Last year he worked on the TV drama series, The Sins, with Pete Postlethwaite, and the film Last Christmas with Ray Winstone. “You get a completely different buzz from doing TV and film. It’s much better paid than theatre, but ironically there is less to do. You find locations and make sure the continuity is OK, since films are always made out of sequence.” He seems sanguine about the wild financial fluctuations of the theatre design world, in which a small coterie of chosen ones earn a fortune, while the rest struggle to earn a decent living. “I don’t feel jealous of the likes of John Napier and Bob Crowley, because their success is something for the rest of us to aspire to, not to mention their royalty cheques. It’s as much to do with fashion and luck as anything else. As in other walks of life, success breeds success.”
Refreshingly, Roger doesn’t have rarefied illusions about his work. “You need to have a magpie mentality,” Roger admits. “A lot of a stage designer’s time is spent nicking ideas from books and archives, responding to other people’s work.” It’s the opposite of being a fine artist. “The stress gets to you sometimes because it never really stops. Sometimes you long for something a bit less demanding. But at least you’re never bored. I still get a huge buzz from seeing my back-of-an-envelope sketches translated into larger-than-life 3D sets, especially somewhere like the Albert Hall.”
Aida is at the Royal Albert Hall, London until 10 March and then will tour in Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham. Box office on 020 7589 8212