“On the Lake Stage there´s nothing off the peg!”

Five Questions for Susanna Boehm, Head of décor at the Bregenz Festival

Bregenz, 22.7.22. Susanna Boehm has been with the Bregenz Festival since 1989. Since 2017 she has been supervisor in charge of scene painting, props, costumes and make-up for all the productions. In this short interview she gives an insight into the problems that arise when painting extremely finely on vertical surfaces of a stage set that measures 1,340 square metres, and into the satisfaction of working on long-term projects like Madame Butterfly.

What are the biggest challenges for you and your team in Madame Butterfly?
We are responsible, for instance, for installing 45 loudspeaker elements on the stage in such a way that the audience doesn’t see them. The same goes for the 117 individual elements from which the stage set – this seeming sheet of paper – is assembled. These elements are exposed to great stresses and strains because of the weather conditions. The art is to disguise the joins so that no cracks are visible.

What about the scene painting work?Madame Butterfly calls for large-scale, classical stage painting. We last had that in Tosca (in the 2007/2008 seasons – ed.). In traditional Japanese ink wash technique, a big paint brush that is soaked in ink wash is used for fine figural painting. But that way the paint would run down when applied to the vertical surfaces of the set. In addition to that we’ve got to paint standing up here, instead of lying down the classical way. Therefore we developed a technique of our own and used small paint rollers, as are known from household use – for instance, when you paint areas in an apartment that are hard to access. Fortunately the weather god was merciful to us and made the sun shine for the three and a half weeks that were needed.

Can you tell us what the collaboration is like between the stage designer Michael Levine and yourself?
For me, the collaboration is initially a matter of establishing trust. I’m working with Michael Levine and director Andreas Homoki’s team for the first time. Each person comes with their own ideas about how to use the stage set. Sometimes it’s necessary to play the whole gamut of diplomacy. But I love that challenge! (Laughs)

With such a wide array of jobs, you have to keep an eye on absolutely everything. Where does your work begin and where does it end?
A production like Madame Butterfly begins for me with the stage designer’s first proposal. It ends three years later after the dress rehearsal, when the very last prop is right. That’s part of why working here is hugely enjoyable – developing a prototype like this over such a long period of time. You don’t do that anywhere else.

You are also responsible for the costumes, along with Lenka Radecky, head of the costume department. Some pieces are made here in Bregenz ...
We have a small but top-notch costume department at the Bregenz Festival. We make the hats ourselves, for instance. Producing everything here would exceed our capabilities, though. So the shoes for the geishas, for example, come from a specialized manufacturer in Milan. We developed the models together. Another company in Milan produces certain textiles for us. These are both custom-made items. On the lake stag there’s nothing off the peg!

Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly can be seen on the lake stage until 21 August. A few tickets are still available, mainly in the final week.