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Set designer talks about a life spent as part of the scenery

GO Brooklyn Editor

Park Slope native Adrianne Lobel has made a career out of making a scene. Or more specifically, of designing scenes.

The 48-year-old set designer works with many of the best choreographers, directors and composers in theaters around the world, in part because she has the brilliant audacity to take her inspiration for the prologue of a French baroque opera-ballet, for example, from a terrarium on a bar overlooking the Gowanus Canal.

The restaurant bar in question is in Monte’s Venetian Room on Carroll Street and the opera-ballet, now on stage at New York City Opera in Manhattan through Oct. 16, is Mark Morris’ production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s comic opera "Platee," about a nymph who lives in a swamp.

Morris, the Fort Greene-based director and choreographer, has collaborated with Lobel on five productions, including "The Hard Nut," his celebrated send-up of "The Nutcracker" and his acclaimed evening-length dance "L’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato."

Although this production of "Platee" was originally presented by the Royal Opera Festival Theatre in Edinburgh in 1997, and was last presented at New York City Opera in 2000 (in a sold-out run), Morris hasn’t yet tired of Lobel’s set.

"It still looks great; it’s not dated and not archaic," said the "Platee" director and choreographer. "It’s a perfectly excellent physical production."

"Platee" opens with a prologue featuring an assortment of revelers in a pub. They waken one of the patrons, sleeping on a table, and encourage him to tell them a story. What unfolds over the next three acts is the tale of Platee’s humiliation at the hands of Jupiter, told through the Mark Morris Dance Group’s dancers and the singers of the New York City Opera.

Working hand in glove with Lobel’s set are spectacular costumes designed by famed fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, a Midwood native. That means Platee, the swamp thing in this 18th-century opera-dance, bears a remarkable resemblance to Sea-Monkeys, as depicted on the packaging of the decades-old brine-shrimp-as-pets novelty product. The personification of Folly, meanwhile, is a winged, platinum-haired, Marlene Dietrich-like stunner.

While the libretto’s prologue by Adrien-Joseph Le Valois d’Orville describes revelers in a vineyard, this production stations them in a pub with the aforementioned terrarium on the bar. As the drunks leave the pub, it darkens, and the terrarium glows with life suggested by lighting designer James F. Ingalls. It’s the perfect segue to Act I, which opens inside the terrarium where the homely nymph Platee, played by the (male) singer Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, holds court. The action is set against an enormous branch of berries, a cave and a picture of trees in a swamp that serve to dwarf the petty interactions of the characters.

Lobel’s inspiration for the backdrop? The pictures taped to the back of terrariums, of course.

"You don’t associate dancing with a swamp," explained Lobel. "There are lily pads and it’s muddy, so how am I going to make a swamp they can dance in? They need a wide-open space. So what’s such a place where frogs, toads and creatures can be? A terrarium!"

The dancers in their brilliantly colored costumes slither in and out of an enormous bowl, which also functions as a fountain, on the stage.

Where did Lobel come up with that prop?

"I had a 106-degree fever and I was so sick for about a week," said Lobel, who had been on a business trip in London at the time. "I thought of my old toad’s terrarium. He had an orange dish that I put his water in."

Coincidentally, "Platee" was first staged in Great Britain. "We’re back in America now, but those productions, ’L’allegro,’ ’Platee’ and ’Hard Nut,’ originated in Europe at a time when there was more money for the arts; it was not all about how much you can cut," said Lobel, explaining that it’s not so easy to get the funding for worthwhile projects in the U.S. "And [Mark and I] are minimalist thinkers to begin with - we don’t go out doing gigantic spectaculars."

"It’s a whole different system [in the United States]," concurred Morris. "It’s not just money for productions that is missing, there is zero arts education, which is a disgusting tragedy." Morris, recently described by the Boston Globe’s Richard Dyer as "the most important choreographer since George Balanchine," said that the lack of government money for arts and culture "absolutely ties my hands - especially for work on a big scale."

"L’Allegro" was created in Belgium, when Morris was director of dance at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.

"The resources were unlimited," recalled Lobel. "Sadly that production never would have happened but there and then."

Aside from being "terribly expensive," Lobel believes working on Broadway is "not an imaginative theater, it’s a mechanical one."

In contrast, Lobel points out the owl from Morris’ "Platee."

"Working with Mark is so heavenly. We feel the ridiculous is the most sublime - the owl just walks off the stage," she said. "Any other director would be asking you for flying machines. You watch that owl walk off the stage and it’s ... what theater should be: as simple and funny as possible. I really like working with him because the solutions are clever and imaginative."

Lobel now lives in Manhattan with her husband, actor Mark Linn-Baker, and their 2-year-old daughter Ruby Beatrice. And although she says she keeps threatening to retire, Lobel is working on sets for Tobias Picker’s "An American Tragedy" (to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera in December 2005) and John Adams’ "Doctor Atomic" to premiere at the San Francisco Opera in October 2005.

With both productions, Lobel is working with living composers who are creating the works "as we speak."

"When you are working with a composer on a new piece, they are as influenced by you as you are by them. So that’s true collaboration," she said.

Lobel gets her inspiration from many sources; she claims that when she begins working on a set, "I can’t even draw without music; music moves my hand." As a jumping-off point for "An American in Paris," which Lobel is designing for New York City Ballet, she is referencing works by Picasso and Braque. Meanwhile, for the swamp vegetation in "Platee," Lobel did her research in a pet store.

"That poor plant is based on a plastic plant that I believe I got at Petland," said Lobel. "You know, to keep your pet company. Nothing is natural on that stage. The dish is an actual replica of my pet toad’s water dish, blown up many times. He never knew his dish would be a fountain in a baroque opera. You use everything. Maybe out of desperation - or inspiration."


New York City Opera’s production of "Platee" will continue at the New York State Theater (65th Street at Broadway in Manhattan) through Oct. 16. Performances are Oct. 10 at 1:30 pm, Oct. 14 at 7:30 pm and Oct. 16 at 8 pm. Tickets are $27-$115. For more information, go to or call (212) 870-5630.

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