With a career spanning six decades, Peter Rice is one of the most respected and admired set/costume designers in the opera world – having worked across Europe and on both sides of the Atlantic. Together with the late Anthony Besch, he was responsible for the iconic 1980 production of Puccini’s Tosca which is being revived as the finale of Scottish Opera‘s current season.

What is the process of design between the director and yourself?

Well it probably differs between different designers, but for myself I work very closely with the director and it’s very important that my design carries out his view of the production. I consider myself the eyes of the production and the director the brain – he or she decides on the psychological interpretation of the play and I interpret it visually.

What normally happens is we meet and discuss our views on the play. Ideally, it’s a mixture between our ideas. The first thing is to decide what we’re not going to do. Very often in the case of operas they are standard works and have developed standard interpretations. So of course we want to keep the spirit and intention of the opera, but also bring out a fresh aspect to jolt the hardened opera-goers out of their preconceptions and get them to re-evaluate the work.

We then discuss a few ideas before I go away and do a number of drawings, sometimes one or two contrasting interpretations based on the ideas I think we have in common. I show them to the director and between us we make a final decision on the direction. From there I go back to the studio and make a scale model of the set, showing precisely what it will look like and how it will be achieved. I also design the costumes. Many productions have a separate costume designer, but personally I like create a total visual unity.

Once this is done I show it to the director and make any suggested changes. Then together we put it to our management. We demonstrate with models, designs, showing set changes, costumes etc. If that’s approved it then goes to the financial department for costing and very often they come back to tell us we’re over budget and the director and I make some changes. Once that’s agreed the model goes to the carpentry workshop and the costume department who work from my drawings until we arrive altogether on stage – that is more or less the process.

we’re still working with techniques developed in the 17th century

Phew! And how have the technological developments in audiovisual and construction techniques affected what you do?

The mechanics have changed dramatically. For instance nowadays it’s not unusual to have a false stage on top of the existing stage to hide all the wheels, wires and pulleys that drive the scenery. Of course there are the electronics, but also certain features of theatres have been enlarged too, so that now much more sophisticated mechanisms for moving scenery and larger grids (the framework above the stage) are common as well. That being said it’s still a question of traditional stagecraft – we raise things and lower things and slide things off and on. We can now lift, lower and slide heavier items, but we’re still working with techniques developed in the 17th century. I always point this out to new designers who are horrified at the complexity of what lies before them. I say to them: “you slide on, you slide off, you go up, you go down, and that’s the way it works.”

I think what is true nowadays is that designers are always looking for some mechanical device that allows them to move a set in a way that nobody has done before. That, I think, is the Eldorado of design. This isn’t so true for me as I’m a designer of the pre-mechanical era and I like to know a simple way of doing things so that when something goes wrong – as it always does – I have some idea of what to do about it.

Tosca, like most of Scottish Opera’s work, is a touring production. What part does the shape and size of individual theatres play in your design decisions?

Well with Scottish Opera they look very closely at the production that’s starting at the Theatre Royal and if they find a piece of scenery that won’t fit, for instance in Stirling, they immediately adapt it or find a replacement piece. Of course it was much easier 75 years ago when all the theatres had much of the same equipment. I started my career designing plays that could travel across the country from Aberdeen to Manchester to Southampton and you would have to change very little. Adapting for touring remains a problem for companies today; not just physically, but financially as well with the construction and transportation of new sets and scenery required.

what would you think about setting it in Rome under the Nazis?

This production of Tosca is set in Mussolini’s Rome. Did you make any discoveries about the architecture or design of the times?

Well what I did do was go to Rome. I went to the locations mentioned in the opera with my tape measure and sketch book. I went to the church of St Andrea, the Farnese Palace and the Castel St’Angelo, measured and decided that everything I put on the set would not only be a version of what was there, but for instance with the columns of the church, it would match exactly. (Which means of course you can only see the bases and a large part of the plinths – which is true is the church itself.)

When I originally started designing it in 1980 with the director Anthony Besch, we planned to set it as described in the opera, during the occupation of Rome in the early 19th century by Napoleon’s troops. I did my drawings and costumes and met with Anthony who, after a long pause said: ‘what would you think about setting it in Rome under the Nazis’ because a few days earlier he’d watched Rossellini’s Rome Open City and he thought that would be appropriate and surprising. So I scrapped my costume designs but I didn’t have to change the sets as of course the buildings remained the same. I believe that this was the first time a Tosca had been set then. It’s since become quite common. At the time people found it slightly shocking which I think was the director’s intention: to jolt people out of their complacency.

As someone of a generation who lived through the war, what was the effect on you of designing something so redolent of the period?

It was very resonant for me. I was about 12-14 at a time when you are very impressionable. And of course my generation tend to bore everybody else talking about it because it was a time for us that was both exciting and fearsome.

When we were doing the costumes for the chorus for the third act, the great pleasure for me was to go round all the vintage clothing shops in Glasgow and London buying all the original 1940s clothing so the costumes were correct – not to Italy, but to the period. It was revived recently in Spain and I had trouble convincing the young men that they couldn’t have beards or long hair and that only old men and artistic types would sport that look. I had to say to them that I know because I was there at the time. With women I spend a lot time adjusting the angles of the hats as there are often young women who’ve never worn them. With men I often have to show them how to tie… a tie.

many young designers are very interested in shocking or surprising

With Grand Opera – Tosca being a particularly good example – people have an expectation of opulence. Do you let that affect your design?

Well for my own personal taste I love opulence and grandeur, but I think the main thing you want to do is surprise your audience. You can surprise them by being so glamorous and extraordinary that you take their breath away or you can surprise them by doing the opposite, condensing the ideas into something very simple. That can still be very impressive, but it’s not elaborate. For instance, you could do Aida without all the Egyptian setting, just using a Sphinxes’ paw or a huge Pharonic eye at the back of the set. Very often an audience will respond strongly to seeing an idea distilled into a simple image.

Many young designers are very interested in shocking or surprising and are determined not to be “traditional”. I don’t have such qualms. For instance in Germany most operas are now done automatically in modern dress, which I think is tedious because it doesn’t inform or really relate to the 17th century dialogue. Of course it’s nothing new, there’s an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Zoffany theatre paintings from the 1760s where all the Shakespeare is in contemporary clothing. Of course at that time there wasn’t the research there is now. Now we have endless references we can call on for any period, and I think for a lot of designers, the very accessibility of all this makes it worthless in a sense.

I think a lot of designers want to keep the audience on their toes; they need to take a leap of imagination themselves. The traditional theatre audiences were supposed to be entertained and delighted in a passive way and now the idea is to engage them more – even if it means enraging them, at least they’re not passive.