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In the hot seat at the Coliseum

Jeremy Myerson on the DT challenges facing the creators of the latest of the English National Opera's outstanding sets. Just a fortnight to go before the lights go up on English National Opera's new production of Beethoven's Fidelio and on the raked stage of the Coliseum there is a whirlwind of activity among the team of people responsible for realising its towering modernist set design.

By the time the opening notes ring out on the first night, more than 200 people - designer, director, engineers, carpenters, painters, stage crew, stage managers and production staff - will have been directly involved in the design of Fidelio's set, which is being built at a cost of Pounds 260,000.

Watching all the banging and clattering is Ian Golding, head of design and technology at Chessington Community College, Kingston upon Thames, who is spending a morning at the Coliseum to witness the set taking shape for the first time.

For the teacher of design and technology who is trying to take back to his pupils a sense of the urgency and exactness of professional design decision making, this is a project which offers a lot of lessons.

Fidelio is traditionally set against the stone walls and iron bars of an 18th-century dungeon. It is an opera of suspense and escape, which has the Prisoners' Chorus as its highlight. But for this production, which will have 13 performances during its run in the ENO repertory, designer Paul Brown has created a spectacular wooden cross more than 16 metres high and 11 metres in span, which is inched up on pulleys during the opera to reveal the prisoners underneath.

To build the cross and make it the central image of the production is a feat of engineering which has required investment in the ageing Coliseum's stage grid in order to increase the lifting capacity to bear the weight of such an edifice. The project has also required team work, lateral thinking, creative interpretation and compromise to meet tight cost, time and technical constraints. And there is some way to go yet before it all comes right on the night.

Ian Golding is impressed by what he sees. As the giant cross is manoeuvred into place for the first time, he is struck by "the constant process of juggling to achieve the best design outcome, against a looming deadline". Golding, who originally studied furniture design at Manchester Metropolitan University and worked in industry for the Finnish company Martela before become a teacher, is particularly interested in what happens to the set when not in use. Fidelio is running as part of ENO's daily changing repertory, so the giant cross needs to be broken down into four pieces and stored - and for this, a new storage beam has been installed at the back of the theatre. "They make it work despite the limitations of weight and stress," says Golding. "Given the sheer scale, I'm also surprised at the relative modesty of the budget."

Executing a set design at the Coliseum is a lengthy process. The decision to stage a new production of Fidelio, last seen at the Coliseum in 1988, was taken as part of the company's five-year artistic plan. Director Graham Vick, returning to the Coliseum after triumphs abroad, chose to work with designer Paul Brown. The pair had already collaborated successfully in New York (on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and Paris (on King Arthur).

Brown, who trained under the legendary Margaret Harris at the Riverside Studios, discussed the artistic intent with Vick and duly delivered a 1:25 scale model of the wooden cross to the ENO production office in January 1995. "Model making is vital," explains Brown, "because theatre design is a three-dimensional thing. You work to the technical restrictions. You must be able to push the boundaries, but respect them."

ENO technical director Laurence Holderness, who is ultimately responsible for building the set and making the design work on stage, was delighted to receive the model more than a year in advance of the production opening. But some time was lost due to personnel changes on the production team and, says Holderness, "We didn't really appreciate all the implications of the cross until about six months ago. As a set, it is only just possible to achieve."

By the time Ian Golding is watching developments, one major crisis has already been averted. On the advice of Delstar Engineering, the theatrical engineers who built the giant cross out of sectioned plywood veneered in American cherry, the production office went back to the director and designer and requested more depth to the cross for safety and stability. But Vick and Brown refused point blank, arguing that such a design change would affect the sight lines in the auditorium.

Eventually construction was achieved to the original design specification, by making the sides thinner to meet the correct ratio of weight and strength. "It's always an iterative process," says Laurence Holderness. "I think we've managed to find the quietest, most effective way to lift the cross, even if we had to strengthen the grid to a lifting capacity of eight tonnes."

Holderness is undoubtedly in the hot seat at the Coliseum, which is currently the subject of endless speculation about much-needed refurbishment. A former dancer who once performed onstage for the ENO, he is under no illusions about the tough task he faces in running the technical department with its 135 staff. "Doing rep opera in such an old building is a logistical nightmare," he confided to Ian Golding. "I've survived in the job nearly a year, but it's stressful."

Golding was interested in the fact that two of the company's three set production managers are women. The set production manager assigned to Fidelio is Charmaine Goodchild. "Is it harder being a woman in this environment?" shouted Golding above a crescendo of hammering. "You do have to prove yourself more," replied Goodchild.

Golding was encouraged "to find women so high up on the design team". He commented: "I find that female pupils enjoy design and technology at key stage 3, but from age 14 onwards they tend to be reluctant to work with resistant materials. They tend to come to me and say 'you help me, you do it for me'. But I think we've simply got to make design projects more interesting for them. If you take the Fidelio set as an example, the girls will be less interested in the jiggerams that lift the cross than in how the whole set fits together as an artistic piece."

Golding has never set a design brief involving a stage set, and contemplates the prospect of inter-departmental collaboration between the English, drama, and design and technology departments in an ideal world. But he argues that the narrow focus of the national curriculum works against such a cross-subject approach.

The role of drawing in design also concerns him. "I'm trying to make drawing an essential issue in my school. Pupils aren't generally good at capturing their ideas on paper. I wonder how Paul Brown puts his ideas down?" The designer of Fidelio provided an unexpected answer. "Drawing is a very useful skill to have, but it's not a necessity."

As Ian Golding returned to his Chessington classroom from the Coliseum with much to reflect on, Paul Brown and Laurence Holderness have another long day and night ahead preparing for a technical run-through. Attention to detail, says Holderness, will make all the difference. "It's such a minimalist set that it's got to look perfect or people will wonder where all the money went. "

English National Opera's new production of Fidelio opened at the Coliseum on Wednesday (April 24).

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