The Unseen Artist: A Conversation with Jake Ewonus

La Boheme

La Bohème photo by C. Stanley

Bringing to life one of the most beloved (and most produced) operas in the history of the art form is a daunting task but, in the capable hands of the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ scenic designer and MFA candidate Jake Ewonus, La Bohème springs vividly to life. I sat down with Jake to ask about his experiences designing the show.

Danny Parisi: In designing La Bohème, what did you look to for inspiration?

Jake Ewonus: It’s kind of laid out for you. In the beginning, we started talking about the time period and where it’s set. We actually ended up setting it roughly 20 years before it’s originally supposed to be. It’s set in the 1860s, but we set it in the 1840s because it’s simpler. I was looking at pictures of Paris in the 1840s and specifically Bohemian lifestyle. It was a very select group of people. They lived in a certain way; they dressed in a certain way; they hung out in certain neighborhoods, so I had that historical context. More artistically, we didn’t have the resources to go super realistic which was great for me because it allows me to be a little more abstract which is what I love. I immediately gravitated toward the painters of that period – Pissarro and Manet – and how I could incorporate that feeling and that emotion in my scenic design.

DP: What was your favorite part of the design for La Bohème?

JE: Honestly my favorite part of Bohème was that it was my first time designing for opera, and I just fell in love with the show. Every night that I sat down to watch it in rehearsal, I got chills. I loved the tech process and sitting in there and listening to the performers sing and feeling the emotion. And every time I watched it I got a new idea of how to do something and how to be a better part of this collaboration and help evoke as much emotion and feeling as the singers are.

DP: You mentioned this was your first time designing for opera, how is it different from designing for other types of shows?

JE: Well, the first thing that was very challenging was that I don’t read music and the whole libretto is in Italian. So it was difficult for me to find those specific important moments in it and try and communicate with the director. Unlike in theater where you can say “this is the moment where so-and-so says this or that” or “when this character does this,“ in opera everyone talks in terms of music so when they say something about the part in Act 3 in the second stanza, I don’t really know what that means so that was difficult and very different, but we worked around it. In opera they also do something called “park and bark” where they pick a spot on the stage and they stand there and just sing, and they don’t touch the set or interact with the props. They do it a lot, so I could just focus on the sculpture of the set and create a beautiful piece of art that stands alone. It allowed me to be bigger than usual.

You can check out Jake’s designs at the MFA 2013 Design Exhibition at Studio Theatre on Monday, May 13 from 1–5PM and at the Clarice Smith Center’s Cafritz Foundation Theatre on Tuesday, May 14 from 1–5PM and Wednesday, May 15 from 10AM–1PM.