Oct. 13, 2023

INTELLIGENCE: Going Behind the Scenes

Designer Mimi Lien on her vision for the opera’s set
Photo Credit: Michael Bishop

Houses are always repositories of some kind, and this particular story is rooted in these two houses—the Van Lew mansion, and the Confederate White House—as not only the literal homes of the characters and containers of their lives, but also as metaphorical symbols of the ideologies of a divided America during the Civil War. 

Since the piece is not strictly a historical piece—as the presence of Lucinda insists on the past, present, and future existing at the same time—the architecture can’t be so solid or static as to anchor us only in the historical story. I wanted to create a spirit space where Mary Jane’s ancestors could move through the walls of the house; as well as a fragmented space that functions like selective memory and responds to Mary Jane’s gaze as she tries to put together the puzzle of information that she is gathering against the Confederacy, and the puzzle of her own life story, as she tries to figure out what really happened to her mother.

What I set out to create:

 An architecture of hiding, full of dark corners, shadows, mystery; the feeling of hiding in plain sight.

 A sculptural architecture of memory that makes visible what transpired within the walls of these houses, that reveals and conceals the well-worn patterns of movement through the rooms, and evokes the whispered conversations that occurred in the hallways and staircases.

The feeling of ghostly lightness, and a sense of great weight at the same time.

The feeling of a house (and everything it stands for) that has always been hanging over us, and still is, but is somehow incomplete and allows space for “futuring” to happen.

The ROOMS of the houses are represented by wood frames that outline the volume of the space. Certain planes of the rooms have sheer fabrics on them, each one a different color or pattern, much like how the rooms of historical houses have different characters and wallpapers, and also a reference to the quilt imagery in the libretto. The different rooms fly down when they are being used, or when their presence wants to be felt. So the house is rarely “complete” or “whole”—some pieces of the puzzle are always missing.

There is a HALLWAY STRUCTURE that bisects the rooms of the house like a transparent wall, and rotates in order to indicate our movement from one house to the other.

 The ROOMS going up and down give us vertical movement, and the HALLWAY rotating gives us lateral movement. The rooms land on either side of the HALLWAY positions. There is a STAIRCASE which gets moved around to access the second level of the HALLWAY, which is traversed by dancers who move unconstrained throughout the house and the space.

The angled OUTER WALLS AND FLOOR of the space, made of charred wood planks, are a container for the physical world of the piece that is the realm of Lucinda and the Ancestors, the Is/Was/Will. The burned wood texture gives us a sense of history—of “something has happened here,” but also feels alive and earthy—a place where spirits can roam.

about the author
Mimi Lien
Mimi Lien is the set designer for Intelligence