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Gerard Gauci - Resident Set Designer for Opera Atelier

"I'm not sure where AI technology will go in scenic design, but eventually it will have some role on stage for future productions."

Bruce Zinger

Joe Szekeres

From Gerard’s website and our Zoom conversation:

“Gerard Gauci is the Resident Set Designer for Toronto’s Opera Atelier. Educated at the Ontario College of Art and Design, he graduated with Honours in 1982. He was in the Communication and Design Department. Gerard wanted to work in the applied arts, and he studied to become an illustrator.

The theatre has always been at the back of his mind.

His work encompasses art, theatre, and museum design. He has worked with Atelier since its first fully staged production in 1985. He has designed the company’s complete repertoire, spanning Monteverdi to von Weber. His work for the stage has been seen across Canada, throughout the United States and Europe. Gauci’s sets have been presented by Houston Grand Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival in New York State, and the Opéra Versailles.”

During our conversation, Gerard mentioned that his designs are all done by hand and rarely uses a computer.

Ever since I’ve had the opportunity to attend some of Atelier’s productions, I’ve been highly impressed with Gauci’s designs.

How did Gerard connect with Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg from Toronto’s Opéra Atelier?

While working as an illustrator, he was commissioned to do a magazine cover for the monthly CBC Radio Guide (the TV Guide for Canadian radio). There was always an illustrated cover, and Gerard was asked to produce one about theatre. He’s always been interested in the fine arts and decorative arts of the eighteenth century, particularly in France and Italy. Gerard created a published cover that featured a Baroque dancer in a kind of allegorical costume set on a stage.

Marshall and Jeannette subscribed to this monthly Radio Guide, saw the cover, and found it interesting. They tore it off and stuck it on the fridge door. Jeannette happened to be working with some photographers, and one of them said she and Marshall should meet this ‘guy’ who’s interested in all this Baroque stuff “you’re interested in.” Through one connection leading to another, Gauci received a phone call from them and wanted to meet one day. He did.

Marshall and Jeannette asked if Gerard would design some props for “The Choice of Hercules,” a production they were doing in the theatre at the Royal Ontario Museum theatre. Gerard agreed and enjoyed the experience. Marshall and Jeannette then continued to ask Gerard to work on set designs.

Thus, his connection with the two of them began, and a new chapter opened:

“Thirty-five years later, I’m still here.”

Where does Gerard see the world of opera and theatre’s trajectory over the next five years?

He paused for a moment. First, he said that’s a good question as the industry is still in recovery from Covid. Many of the artists whom I’ve interviewed have also agreed with this, along with the fact everyone wants to establish once again where they were before 2020.

He then added:

“Technology is becoming a bigger and bigger factor on the stage itself. In terms of scenic design, projection is a huge part of what one now sees on the stage. There’s talk of exploring AI scenically on stage. I’m not sure where that will go, but eventually, it will have some role on stage for certain kinds of productions.”

Gauci can’t speak as a director. In terms of set design, the world of printing is changing everything. For his entire history with Opera Atelier, Gerard has everything painted on stage: backdrops, set, and flats. He has a team of painters who do all this work. Gerard creates a small-scale rendering, and the painters reproduce it at a large scale on canvas with scenic paint. This is all changing now dramatically.

In the early days, one couldn’t print anything at that scale. Today, if something is 25 feet by 25 feet, it can be sent out and printed. Gerard foresees that printing will probably overtake the world of scenic painting. Atelier did a production in Italy several years ago where all the drops would be printed in Germany. Gerard had to send scans of paintings. He called this both technological and concerning because he had no idea what the quality would be like coming from a printing press instead of the hands of a team of painters.

Gerard was astonished when he saw the quality of the work:

“These were drops that were 60 feet X 25 feet. They were enormous. The quality was superb, and it looked exactly like my painting. When you have someone physically paint it, there’s a kind of translation that has to happen because their hand is not the same as my hand. It doesn’t look exactly like me. What I had printed looks exactly like me and done in a fraction of the time and cost fraction of what it would cost to have something painted by a team of painters.”

Gauci concurs something is lost because there’s an ineffable quality about a painting versus a print. It’s not the same thing. Printed versions usually have a bit of sheen, whereas scenic paint is designed to be very flat and not reflect light but absorb it.

This kind of technology in the theatre has revolutionized the world of scenic art and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, as Gerard sees it, the world of scenic painting becomes less and less of a profession. It has been used less and less over the years because scenic designers have been thinking digitally for an entire generation.

Why should people continue to see the opera?

The pandemic proved to everyone the value of live theatre. Everyone watched online offerings when everything shut down, yet Gerard found that experience unsatisfying. He couldn’t be engaged with that screen in the way he was engaged in the theatre.

When everything ‘returned,’ Gerard said he rushed back like everyone. He saw some shows – in his words, they were fine, but they weren’t great productions. The experience of being back in the theatre reminded him of how irreplaceable it is. As audience members, we participate in that production because there is an energy exchange between the performers and the audience. Then, there is the added exchange of energy among audience members. It’s a human resonance. There’s some life-affirming about the experience of being in the theatre.

Gerard added something that many artists I’ve profiled have intimated the same thought:

“I found I was moved far more in the theatre than I was looking at the screen.”

For Gerard, opera strives to combine all the arts. The exciting thing about Baroque opera? It was seen as a synthesis of the arts – scenic, orchestral, vocal, and balletic. Emotions were big. It allowed spectators to participate in the opera. It’s about life, but it’s bigger than life.

He also added:

“It was an age of invention in the theatre. The Italians were the great genius of scenic design. They could create very magical effects that would happen before the eyes of spectators. Seeing these changes on stage was an exhilarating experience for an audience.”

Gerard admires Marshall and Jeannette's commitment and tenacity. It takes incredible energy and determination to run any theatre company, even if for a very short period to keep it running and lively for almost forty years is an amazing achievement. They are high-energy people and have never wavered in their commitment to the company and its vision. Marshall and Jeannette’s energy is infectious, and most of all, it’s fun. For Gerard, these qualities are scarce, and he has always admired them for these qualities.

As we concluded our Zoom conversation, I asked Gerard where he sees himself within the next proverbial five years:

“Oh, gosh. That’s a good question. Throughout my career, I’ve worn three different hats – a theatre designer, a painter and a museum exhibition designer. I just like to keep going. I love juggling all of these things because ultimately one thing influences the other. There’s a nice relationship between these three things.”

Gerard still loves painting. He has always been interested in curation and decorative arts of museums. The theatre has been his life for so long. Opera Atelier is not going anywhere so he hopes he will continue designing sets for the company.

His final words: He’s just going to continue going on.

To learn more about Gerard Gauci as artist, visit his webpage:

To learn more about Opéra Atelier:

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