An Artist’s Fantastical Sets and Props Bring World-Renowned Opera Stages to Life

Working behind the scenes and in his studio, John Macfarlane produces internationally acclaimed set, prop, and costume designs for operas and ballets, as well as paintings based on his performing arts work. Speaking of his flair for the lush and fantastical when designing for the stage, he explains: “It has to be totally magical…you have to honor the expectation of an audience, you have to give them the...fantasy world that they’re expecting.” He counts the Royal Opera House, London, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Lyric Opera, Chicago among his numerous and renowned clients worldwide, and has worked on such productions as Cinderella, Elektra, Rusalka, and Hansel and Gretel.

For the Lyric Opera’s presentation of Hansel and Gretel, he evocatively encapsulated the feasting and famine so central to that dark fairy tale in the image of an empty plate. Oversized and white, it adorned the dark front cloth of the stage, flanked by a knife and fork. It also appeared on the drop cloth, shattered into pieces, the fork and knife chaotically askew. The plates effectively referenced the children’s desperate hunger and then their dangerous feasting on “all kinds of good things to eat, milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts,” laid out for them by the witch. If spareness characterized his curtains for Hansel and Gretel, extravagance describes his costume designs for Elektra, as seen in a series of mixed-media drawings. Elektra: Jewelry and Make-Up (2013) features Elektra’s heavily rouged face in profile, her neck and shoulders piled with an amazing assortment of beaded necklaces and other decorations. In contrast, the maid sketched out in Elektra: Maid (2011) is wrapped in layers of drab cloth. At once delicate and expressive, Macfarlane’s drawings hold their own as works of art and offer viewers a glimpse of how he makes magic.

Karen Kedmey

Explore more artists at Maya Polsky Gallery.

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