Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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Set Design: Magical Realism at the Broad

Jenny Okun's photographs provide the backdrop for a production of Dulce Rosa at the Broad Stage. Image courtesy the Broad Stage.

By Michael Webb

For visual spectacle it would be hard to top the sets for Dulce Rosa, a new opera that is receiving its first performances at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through June 9. In fact, there is only one physical set: A broken arch, some flats and a flight of steps, but these serve as projection screens. As the action moves from back streets to a hacienda, a guerrilla outpost in the jungle, and a family chapel, the scenes shift seamlessly as though we were watching a movie. Most opera productions make do with a single versatile set or resort to heavy lifting during long intermissions. That’s another kind of spectacle—prominently featured in the Met Live productions—as troupes of stage hands roll one vast construction into the wings to replace it with another.

At the Broad, the violence and contrasts of a South American country in turmoil, are evoked in a succession of vivid images. They are the work of Jenny Okun, an artist-photographer who creates kaleidoscopic still images of architectural gems. In preparation for Dulce Rosa, adapted from a short story by Isabel Allende, she traveled to Merida, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru, in search of local color and vernacular buildings. Her images are manipulated and layered to create extraordinary illusions of perspective. It’s 3D without the glasses; the visual equivalent of magical realism. Projected imagery has huge potential for operas that have to be produced on tight budgets and small stages. But it could work just as well at the Dorothy Chandler, and even the Met, which might retire the cranky steel machine that has repeatedly distracted attention during its Ring cycle.

Okun’s artistry has won acclaim and stills from the opera are on show at the Craig Krull Gallery in Bergamot Station, June 1–July 6. There are five more productions of Dulce Rosa, with its score by Lee Holdridge and libretto by Richard Sparks. All but one will be conducted by Plácido Domingo under the umbrella of the LA Opera. Tickets and information at   

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