• Armida Post-Show Discussion

Making Magic:
A Discussion of Stagecraft



Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs and Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the set design and staging of this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Armida experts.

Throughout the libretto and score of Armida, Rossini wrote stage directions for spectacular effects that could be performed with the special equipment available in the new theater in Naples. These include: 

  • A chariot that descends from the clouds and turns into a throne of flowers
  • A pair of disappearing dragons
  • A forest that turns into a magnificent throne room
  • Evil monsters that disappear at the wave of a wand
  • An army of torch-wielding demons who turn an enchanted garden into a place of desolation

In his history of stage illusions, Hiding the Elephant (Da Capo, 2004), Jim Steinmeyer documents how physics and psychology work together with technology to create illusions—devices that trick our minds into believing we’ve seen something we know to be impossible. While movies and TV use sophisticated computer graphics to create illusions, old-fashioned mechanical and electrical tools are still common in the theater. Craftsmen like Steinmeyer, Walter Blaney, and Douglas Tilford have made fascinating careers out of designing such stage effects. Students may enjoy researching these devices and their inventors at websites such as: 

Dover Publications (store.doverpublications.com) provides even more detailed information about the creation of stage illusions in a number of affordable books, including: 

  • Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers
  • Houdini on Magic
  • Maskelyne’s Book of Magic
  • Scarne’s Magic Tricks

Much stagecraft depends on tricks of optical perception—a field of study where theater magic meets psychology. When looking at things, our brains tend to assume similarity, proximity, continuity, and closure of objects—under the right  circumstances of illusion, we imagine seeing things that aren’t there. The principle is explored briefly at www.keele.ac.uk/depts/aa/widening/uniworld/webclub/rs/optical.htm.

A more detailed explanation can be found at allpsych.com/psychology101/perception.html. Information is also available at www.scientificpsychic.com/graphics.

Equipped with a bit of knowledge of the craft and psychology of illusion building, students may enjoy trying to analyse the work of the artists of the Metropolitan Opera: what kind of technical devices did they employ? How did they play with the audience’s perceptual expectations to achieve the effects seen in this production of Armida? Students can share their hypotheses in drawings or posters. Even better, they may enjoy designing and building their own illusions. Teacher resources are available from the International Technology Education Association at iteaconnect.org.