John Macfarlane, the set and costume designer for the new Tosca, is well known for his ravishing drawings and paintings. He recently spoke to the Met’s Matt Dobkin about his work for the stage—and for a Gallery Met exhibition.
What was your initial reaction when director David McVicar approached you to design a new Tosca for the Met?
Well, the obvious one is terror. It is such a big deal with Tosca, because it has such a history in this house. I thought it would be very, very hard to be the person following Franco Zeffirelli—and it must have been very difficult for the team that did do that [in 2009]. But my main reaction was just huge excitement.
How did you develop your approach?
In our first conversation, David simply said to me, “It’s going to have to be site-specific.” And there was no discussion beyond that. Tosca is about Rome, and it’s about Roman Catholicism, and it’s set in a very, very specific period in the history of Rome. If you take that away from it, it’s a bit like taking Paris away from La Bohème.
What kind of research did you do?
I spent a week in Rome, in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, drawing, making photographs, and also at the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was amazing, because I went up at about seven in the morning, as soon as it opened, and went straight through to the top deck. It was wonderful because there was nobody there—the tour groups all take forever to get up there— so I had time, just doing detailed drawings of the angel and the stonework and taking photographs.
What are the challenges of recreating an actual site for the stage?
The challenge is to make that chapel utterly convincing but to turn it 90 degrees, so it can work theatrically. Act II works wonderfully because we have perspective distance in an interior. So you have a downstage and an upstage, and through a door you’ve got the torturer and Cavaradossi. It gives a sense of isolation and distance. You see the whole room, but you’re still able to focus on a little dining table right in the middle. It’s a theatrical device, but it’s a device that works.
I understand some of your work will be on display in Gallery Met.
I came back from Rome with a pile of drawings. The exhibition will have 14 of them, the production model for Act I, and two sheets of prop drawings—all the religious artifacts and candlesticks and crucifixes. The show is called Tosca: The Rome Drawings—it sounds like a movie.
Tosca: The Rome Drawings is on display in Gallery Met December 13–January 13.