Last Sunday, I went to go see Philip Glass’s opera, Orphée, which was wonderful. It was my first modern opera, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While it lacked the grand scenes I love in opera, where everyone is on stage singing (like the “Te Deum” in Tosca), the score was lovely and lyrical. I enjoyed the set, and the way the performers moved through it. The singing was of course beautiful. But in between reading the subtitles, enjoying the music, and keeping an eye on the Princess, I found myself thinking of writing.
In this modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, Orphée is a hipster poet. The opera opens with him moping at a raging party in a swank apartment, and unlike any other opera I’ve been to, we stay in the swank apartment. No curtains dropped, no moving scenery. The space changes as the people moving through it change. A boisterous crowd warms the white space. When they leave, the space feels big and empty, setting the stage for death. The subtle marching rhythm of the music takes us on a journey through the underworld. Blatting trumpets accompany the agitated entrance of Aglaonice and the Commissioner. With Eurydice’s unhappy mien, the audience understands they’re witnessing a moment of domestic misery. Three judges on a bench, sitting stiff as boards, holding their teacups, transform a living room into a courtroom.
And what’s the lesson here? With the same story, we can tell many different truths. Who we put in the story, the tone we choose, the way they move through the space, are all tools we can use to shape our stories. A fantasy story with dragons and elves can be about anything, just as much as there will always be a boy meets girl story with a new spin. In many ways, there isn’t really anything new to write about—all the sets have already been built and used if you will. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a new way to use the same space.
Another element handled beautifully in Orphée was the theme of mirrors. With the help of the pair of gray gloves, the characters use mirrors to travel to the underworld. Instead of having the singers pass through a curtain, or simply walk off stage, their doubles join them on the stage. So as we watch Orphée in the Princess make their journey, another Orphée and Princess walk away from them. At times, these doppelgängers expressed emotions that were only undercurrents in the interactions between the two original characters (like when Eurydice and the Princess’s henchmen Heurtebise canoodle in the background). The set itself featured a chaise lounge and lamp set up so they mirrored each other. There was a pair of motorcyclists. When the judges take statements, you can’t help but notice their symmetry—tall, short, tall—whether they’re seated or standing. The production didn’t neglect the most obvious physical aspect of a mirror either. The set featured shimmering cascades of silver beads, adding to the chic look and incorporating the aesthetics of the mirror onto the set. Although, occasionally a bit of reflected light flashed over the audience, so there may have been an actual mirror on the left part of the stage, where I could not see. A glazier also joined the cast during one of their travels through the underworld, and tucked under his arm, was a mirror.
The theme of mirrors is reflected in many different ways, from the physical set itself, to the way the characters travel through the mirrors (their doubling), to even a character carrying a mirror. Likewise, when you want to incorporate a theme like flowers into your text, they are myriads of ways to do it. When describing colors, you can use words like rose-red, violet, periwinkle, and verdant, which all bring to mind flowers. For verbs, you have a variety to pick from: grow, sprout, blossom, bloom, bud, twine, hedge, etc. Nouns also provide you with a veritable bouquet of words that will suit your purpose. Metaphors come easily. I suggest writing a million of them and keeping the few that really work. It’s also quite simple to incorporate the object itself. Your character can receive, or admire, some flowers. And of course, you can work in some larger significance of the theme. Flowers can represent growth and change, or they can be a symbol of love, whatever you like.
Really, this is the power of a blank page, of an empty stage. You can fill it however you like. You can turn conventions on their heads, or follow the rules. And the whole world is there for you to take inspiration from—be it the kipple that constitutes reality TV to a chance encounter with a stranger to a museum full of saucy Greek vases.