If you’ve ever been to the theater, you know that special moment when the lights in the auditorium grow dim, the audience hushes as the orchestra puts their fingers to their instruments. Everyone waits in great anticipation for the curtains to open. Then the moment comes, the curtains are slowly pulled back, exposing a hidden world. Often the first thing you see is a set. What is it? A forest? A palace? A blank space? Perhaps it’s a living room? Or train station? Immediately as you lay your eyes on the scenery you are told something about the story. You are given a context for what is about to take place. This experience is similar for the artists waiting in the wings. The wings somehow feel like a teleportation device that transports you from the real world to Alice in Wonderland, or a German village in the 1600s, or a bowling alley of the 1940s. Sets immediately set the tone for productions and play a vital role in both the audience and artist’s experience. And yet, this too, like the costume department, often goes unrecognized and un-praised. As I sat down with Kristel Linnutaja my respect for their work only grew. Kristel is the head of the set department here at the Estonian National Opera. Funnily enough, however, unlike many people who work in the opera house, she wasn’t someone who initially consider herself artistic, though she had a great appreciation for art.
“The funny thing is, when you sent me the questions, I was like, when did I initially get interested in theater production? I think it might have something to do with the fact that our school always had these Nutcracker and Swan Lake visits every year. Still now, they come every December or something for a show. We did that every year, so I’ve seen many Swan Lakes and Nutcrackers! I think that planted something in me, probably subconsciously.
And then, when I was finishing school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. But in high school, I was interested in theater, I was always going to see plays and stuff… I don’t know, there was a small bug in me, I wasn’t artistic, I wasn’t a drawer or a painter, I never went to art school, it’s funny. I think (after high school) I just talked my way into the Estonian Academy of Arts. I don’t know how they let me in, but for the test, I just gave them a very conceptual solution to the task they gave us and I don’t know, I talked myself into that school. But obviously, I had some eye and some talent otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted me.”
After getting accepted to the Estonian Academy of Arts she decided to specialize in theater productions.
“Once you get in, there were two directions you could go back then, theater or film, so I went into theater. We studied scenography, so actually, I should have been a designer, like a stage designer. But what I love about this job is what I do now; I get to be a part of the creative process with the designer, and help them and figure out creative solutions, but then again there’s the technical side of it. So I like the fact that you kind of have two feet on the ground but at the same time get to be creative. You kind of have the best of both worlds!”
Kristel already started working part-time at the Estonian National Opera during her last year of her bachelor’s. After graduating she began working full time.
“At first I was the assistant to the head of the set department, then at one point, since she was more elderly, she did the honorable thing of switching jobs, which was really nice! She trained me, and then we just switched. It’s really rare, I think, nowadays. Often it happens in corporations that the older people don’t want to leave and they distrust the young. But it’s nice and special when somebody trains you and they have their own heir.”
Kristel has been working for the Estonian National Opera for eight years and about four of those years have been as the head.
I had always assumed that because of the amount of work it takes to build a set, and because of the number of premieres that we have, that she had a huge crew behind her. I was shocked to find out that I was very much mistaken.
“The set department team is not that big. We have 14 people currently working. We have a metal workshop and carpenters workshop, which is like two and two people, and then we have a technical specialist who does the drawings and 3D modeling, and then another technical production manager, and then the rest of the people are painters, scenic artists, prop makers and drapists. So it’s not such a big team if you look at the sets.”
Not surprisingly, with a small team comes a lot of work.
“What I do on a normal day; I come in, I go through my emails first, then I go through the department and give people tasks to do or, we discuss changes that need to be made. Then often the designer is here or is coming, or I’m in contact with them by phone or via email. So there is a lot of talking to the designer, choosing the materials, sending them samples. Then we have a lot of meetings with the technical production manager and technical specialist to discuss how we will do certain things. Then of course also just managing the staff, making sure everyone is happy, making sure everything is organized, that they have all the tools and materials they need.”
Another thing I assumed is that they would have a lot of trial and error as they have to construct so many moving parts that artists have to perform on, in or with! But again, I was wrong.
“There is no time for errors. I wish there was more time for testing stuff out. Of course, we sometimes test things, but because we usually have two months for one build- so it’s five premieres a year so it’s two months for each- it means you kind of have to know what your building before you build it. Of course, if something goes wrong then we change it. But the drawings help with that. If you’ve done it on 3D then already you can avoid some mistakes.”
But even amidst a small crew and limited time, it was so obvious how much Kristel loves her job.
“I really do like it. It is like us big grown-ups playing with big pieces of legos. When you get the scale model from the designer and you look at it and then months go by and it’s finished on stage, and your like, ‘it looks exactly like the model or even better!’ The things you used to hold in your hand on a small scale you have it as a big thing! So it is very fun and there’s a lot of variety. Like one production your building is something very modern and technical and then sometimes it’s a forest or a mountain. Every time it’s very different, the visual side of it.”
We also discussed the differences between the Operas and Ballets. As they are very different kinds of art forms they have very different requirements.
“Well for ballet, you need room for dancing, so usually the stage is emptier. There are more hanging pieces. With operas, there is already this perception that when you come to see an opera you have to see something big and magnificent on stage, and the singers don’t need much space either, so the designers like to sometimes go crazy. It can depend, like for example, Snow White is quite a big ballet, so it can have a lot of sets as well. And a lot of paintings, backdrops and layers and whatnot. So it’s not always the rule, but mostly, operas are more work.”
Eight years of work in the theater means close to forty productions! All so different and exciting but there were a couple that stood out to Kristel as her favorites.”
“As far as operas go, Romeo and Juliet, because it’s a very impressive production. It’s one of those rare times that everything comes together. The sets, the director’s vision, the music and you go and see and you’re like, oh, ok this is quality. And since we had to copy the president’s palace, Palais de l’Élysée, there were cornices and doors and whatnot to replicate. It was so interesting to copy that. And as far as ballets go I think my favorite production was Streetcar. Which is like, a simple set, but I like working on productions that are cohesive. When the design, the music, and the dancing all come together, it is more motivating to work on those projects.”
As Kristel spoke I realized how educational this job was. Every production was an opportunity to learn about history, art and culture. She told me how she always tries to read the book or play before working on the production on which it is based. Or the set team will have a movie night to learn more about the story and come up with fun ideas. Whether it’s learning about the architecture of France’s presidential palace or the history of a certain era there is always something new to learn and it is always reflected in the tiniest details of their work.
“Stuff that you use on stage, for example, newspapers, you could just throw a random newspaper on stage, but we try to make it so it’s in the right era, the right language so that the actor or the dancer or the singer gets the correct feeling so that it’s not something random that you’re holding.”
Also being surrounded by so many talented designers offers a wealth of knowledge, experience, and inspiration that never grows old.
“What I do love is the two worlds coming together. And also the people I get to work with. The designers and directors who come in are so interesting, and I get to work with all of them. Sometimes it’s hard, they can be difficult, but they are these amazing inspiring people who you get to learn from. And I like my team, and the rest of the theater, I pretty much like everyone who I work with!
Of course, there are challenges to any job, but one that is unique to our beautiful, little theater is that it was originally built to be a drama theater, not for ballet and opera.
“The small stage doesn’t get in the way, the fact that the house wasn’t built for operas and ballets is what get in the way. Like, the logistics. We have the carpenters and the metal workers in the basement and then we are up here (fourth floor), so there is a lot of lifting stuff, carrying it through the building, and the doors are small and the hatches are small and so sometimes we want to make a part of the set bigger, but then we’re like, oh wait, our hatch is only one meter wide so we can’t make it bigger. And the door is that small so we can’t take it through that hallway.
But ya, the other hard thing is we have to take something that looks beautiful on a design or a scale model and we have to make it so that you can assemble it every night and take it down. So it has to be in sections, it has to be lightweight, it has to fit in the truck and the storage. You have to make it nice to look at but at the same time comfortable for the stage crew to manage.”
There is so much going on in the theater than just ballet and opera. These incredible artists work so hard to not only make the set come alive for the audience, but also for the performers. Next time you go to the theater don’t forget to applaud for this amazing department, and performers, may we never take advantage of the beautiful details that are invisible to the audience, but are there to make our experience so much more real as well!