Designing Silver Birch

Designer of Silver Birch, Rhiannon Newman Brown, on the developing production.  

The design process for Silver Birch has been unique in my career so far. This is the first time I have been involved from the near beginning of a newly commissioned opera and it has been fascinating to see the brilliant crafts of both Jessica and Roxanna layering with each other, building to the finished piece. Unlike the usual process, the director Karen and I were able to start designing and storyboarding before it was finished and include our feedback. In this way we have been able to combine all our efforts and skills to tell this story in the best way possible across all the disciplines involved; the words, the music, the design and the direction.

It is, however, a real challenge! The story is very filmic and the music and text are domestic and conversational, giving it the feel of a TV drama or film. For me these aspects have guided my strong feeling that it should feel ‘real’ as much as possible rather than abstract and theatrical, as is often appropriate for opera design. The places and the characters need to feel and look real. The story touches on very real emotions and I hope, through the design, we will take you on a journey while essentially staying in the same place!

One of the best parts of designing a show is the moment when you move from the 1:25 scale model and drawings on a sketch book page, into 1:1 scale with people, props and set in the rehearsal room. So far I have visited rehearsals and talked through the design and costumes with some of the cast, and soon I will be back with my costume supervisor to start the costume fittings. In the meantime, I receive weekly rehearsal notes which enable me to keep up to date with the rest of the team and how things are evolving. 

I am very much looking forward to seeing the first run-throughs over the next month and working alongside Karen Gillingham, the brilliant team and the cast to bring this all together on the Garsington stage.