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May 23, 2014

Perfect Pairing: Zaha Hadid + L.A. Phil

A 14-foot high oval structure with a pearlescent finish transports performers as they trick and beguile each other in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Cosi fan tutte, opening Friday, May 23, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Just as clothing designer Hussein Chalayan had to devise costumes to facilitate the wily ways of two soldiers betrothed to a pair of sisters whose ability to remain faithful is tested, architect Zaha Hadid had to build a space for the couples’ deception and redemption to play out on a stage with no curtain, and, as she says, “no places to hide.” Hadid, a Pritzker Prize winner who was born in Baghdad and educated at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, masterminded a curving stage with steep ramps that shifts as the scenes in the third and final production of the trilogy of operas by Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte play out inside the Frank Gehry-designed hall. The first production (Don Giovanni) paired L.A.-based architect Gehry with Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The second included costumes and sets by Paris-based Jean Nouvel and Azzedine Alaïa. This London-based combination of Chalayan and Hadid has led to innovative sets and costumes with a truly high-tech twist (the stage appears to morph as if wind is blowing over it—a function that’s been kept secret until opening night). Hadid worked with Chalayan on a dress for the architect’s 1999 exhibition in London at the Millennium Dome, and she again tapped the designer for this L.A. Phil project. “The concept is all about transformation; creating a set that continually adapts in relationship with the storyline,” Hadid says. Here, she discusses her design process and the many challenges of an opera about disguise, temptation, and human nature, set on a curtainless stage.

By Elizabeth Varnell


Have you previously designed sets for an opera?

In 1997, we worked with the choreographer Frederic Flamand on the stage and costume designs for Metapolis, a ballet by the Belgium-based Charleroi Danses. In 2003, we collaborated on the stage sets for Desire, a contemporary opera by Beat Furrer, commissioned by the Steirischer Herbst in Graz, Austria. We also created the stage designs for the Pet Shop Boys’ 1999-2000 world tour.


Are you a fan of Mozart’s work?

Yes. There’s a clarity in the work, yet also remarkable emotional complexity.


Cosi fan tutte has two acts, did you think about the production this way or broken into scenes as you designed the sets?

The set concept is all about transformation; creating a set that adapts and transforms as the storyline unfolds.


The Disney Hall stage has no curtains, did that affect the way pieces move onstage during each act to signal a new scene?

As the performance is in the round, the challenge is creating a set concept that can change with the storyline yet not interrupt or obstruct the views of anyone in the audience. There is no stage left or right—no places to hide!


Describe the process of the collaboration with Hussein Chalayan.

It’s been a fascinating collaboration. Hussein’s work always pushes the envelope. We’re both based in London, so we were able meet whenever we needed to. We certainly share similarities in our methods and process. As with my work in architecture, Hussein is continually exploring new technologies and materials for the design and manufacture of his fashion collections. What is exciting for me is that the production process between idea and result in fashion are so much quicker than for architecture—this faster timeframe leads to greater opportunities for experimentation.


Chalayan has mentioned that he’s been a fan of your work, were you familiar with his designs?

Yes, I’ve always appreciated designers who dare to play with different materials and proportions, so I’ve followed his work for many years.


Was this project influenced by structures you’ve already created?

All our designs originate from similar principles and all the projects are connected somehow. The idea for a building, set design, or a piece of furniture can come up just as quickly, but there’s a big difference in the process of resolving and realizing each design. Last year we collaborated with motion designers from Denmark to create an experimental installation that instantly reacted to the movements of visitors in space, and we have continued this research for the stage design at Disney Hall. All our collaborations give us an opportunity to express our ideas in a different scale and through different media.  We see it as part of a continuous process of design investigation.


Have these sets influenced any upcoming projects you’re currently creating?

Each project increases our repertoire and knowledge. In this case, the research is particularly exciting and I’m sure it will inform our work in the future. It’s a two way process. We apply our architectural research to these collaborations, but we also learn a great deal about the process and new materials of other industries.


Pictured: Zaha Hadid created sets for the L.A. Phil’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte held at Walt Disney Concert Hall and led by Gustavo Dudamel in collaboration with director Christopher Alden.
Photo by Dave M. Benett

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