Over the past 31 years, the Met’s David Ellertson has worked with some of the greatest designers in theater and opera, from Franco Zeffirelli to Günther Schneider-Siemssen, Julian Crouch to Richard Peduzzi. As Assistant Staff Scenic Designer, he serves as the main conduit between visiting directors and set designers and the Met’s army of craftspeople who ultimately build the scenery for new productions, and he builds the remarkable small-scale set models that act as prototypes for the real thing. He recently spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about this essential part of the creative process.
So what exactly is it that you’ve spent 31 years doing as a staff scenic designer?
My office is a bridge between the outside designers and the Met. Since we are set designers ourselves, we think like they do, we appreciate the concept and everything that has gone into the creative process, and we want to help them preserve that. On the other hand, we’re being asked by the Met to make sure that it can be done on budget, on time, and everything else.
How does the collaboration between you and the outside designers work?
The first step is that the director and set designer of a new production will meet withthe Met’s technical crew and my office, and show us the preliminary design. This is most often in the form of a small, relatively simple white card model. But some designers make more elaborate and fleshed-out models, and others don’t make models at all. When I first came to work here, we were using a lot of Italian and German designers—Günther Schneider-Siemssen from Germany, Franco Zeffirelli from Italy, and their protégés. The Germans would almost always build a model, but the Italians never did. Instead, they would do beautiful sketches, and from the sketch, we would have to extrapolate and create a 3D space in a model. So it’s really about filling in whatever the guest designer doesn’t provide in order to get the work into the shops and get the show produced.
Speaking of Zeffirelli, his work has cast such a long shadow at the Met. Do you have a favorite memory of working with him?
One of the stories I tell about Franco is that he always brought his dog in with him—Bambina, a Jack Russell terrier. She would accompany him to rehearsals and also to the design office, where she would wander around and explore under all the tables. One time, we were having a rather heated meeting about a production budget, and the tension in the room just continued to rise and rise, and everyone was getting more than a little testy. But typical of Franco, just at the point that it felt like something was going to be said that would be hard to take back, he saw his dog across the room and yelled, “Ah, Bambina!” and rushed across the room to her, which completely broke the tension. After that, we all decided to go off and think about how to make the numbers work, and it resolved itself from there.
The models you create are extremely intricate and realistic. What makes them so valuable in the design process?
Well, the models really do provide an incredible amount of detail. And when you work on that scale a lot, you come to actually see in that scale. When people come into my office and see a model, they’re often amazed and find it to be a precious, beautiful object. But we don’t really see it that way. Our eyes are inside it as if we’re looking at a full-size set. I’m not thinking about making a precious dollhouse sort of thing, but really getting the detail and the proportion as correct as I can. We have a saying that if a model piece wants to fall over in the model box, there’s a good chance that the actual piece of scenery, which is 24 times bigger, is going to want to fall over onstage.
Once a model is finished, how is it used?
You can look at a model and right away have a sense of how much space it’s going to take up backstage, what storage issues there may be, and a ballpark idea of what the costs might be. And it serves as a first indication to the construction shops of what will be required of them. Another thing we do very early on is light the model as carefully as we can and photograph it. Those photographs become the working bible of the production for about a year, serving as a concrete image of what we’re going for with the set.
And how do the shops use your drawings and models for prop construction, painting and decorating, and technical designs?
After we’ve done the design drawings and drafting, the layout carpenters use them to figure out how to break the units up into manageable pieces that can be handled onstage and stored in containers between seasons, and so on. At that point, the carpenters and scenic artists will come to us and ask for model pieces to use as a tangible reference as they work.
What happens after the full-size set is finished? I hope these beautiful models have a life beyond that point.
We always preserve them and pack them away carefully in a warehouse because, on occasion, we need to bring them back in. For example, sometimes scenery will get damaged or lost. Containers are misplaced, or water gets in and pieces are damaged, and we have to recreate the scenery, so having the model available is important.