Tobias Hoheisel's path to set and costume designing for opera houses around the world was not a wayward one; it’s what he’s wanted since he was 12 years old. After attending design school in Berlin, he jumped straight into the opera world and has designed productions for Opera National de Paris, the Royal National Theater, Deutsche Oper, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera, to name a few. In 2001, his production of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude won the Laurence Olivier award for best opera production.
Hoheisel sat down with SFR ahead of the opening night of Capriccio, his fourth production in his third season at the Santa Fe Opera. We meet at the cantina, an architectural gem (complete with a Cribs-worthy pool) hidden behind the palatial performance space. Hoheisel speaks with the delicate, enunciated diction of a native-German speaker and wears his aesthetic soul on his sleeve, in a clean white linen button up, light khakis and a newsboy cap.
SFR: What do you love about creating for the Santa Fe Opera?
Hoheisel: I think it’s a rather unique combination of a very professional company, which is of course the most important thing, particularly for designers, the workshops are very good. And, it’s in the most beautiful place in the world.
Did you design something for Capriccio that turned out exactly as you hoped it would?
Well, we haven’t opened the show. Today is the second day on stage. I try to do the best I can do and it’s in the eyes of the beholder whether it works and if they think it’s appropriate. In hindsight, there are productions where you think Oh well, there was probably 90 percent achieved. But, that can only be in hindsight as I said. Ask me in two weeks.
Do you feel like you get to create another world in what you do?
Certainly a world. A world where the piece can unfold, and that’s very much what I think we should do. Take the clue from, I would call it, within the piece and create the world with our imagination and our ideas about it. But within is where I think it important to come from rather than outside.
Tell me about your design process, do you draw everything out?
The process, designer director work together. You talk about the piece, you listen to it together. You sort of talk about it and tell each other about it. The next stage is that out of that, certainly, come some ideas. I do indeed sit down and sketch, I normally start with the space rather than the costumes. For the set I do, myself, a very small scale of what I call a sketch model where the sketch is actually transferred into three dimensions.
With costumes, I do research. I’m not a great believer in, sort of, getting piles and piles and piles of research. I do draw my costumes and drawing them is really sort of creating them. I don’t sit down and draw what I already know. It is informed by what you’ve looked at and what you’ve talked about and then you have a vague idea. But I actually, I can only speak for myself, have to sit down and literally draw it. I would say the costume, depending on what it is, between three and six hours each individual sketch.
What made you want to do Capriccio?
It’s a very, very unusual opera and Strauss doesn’t even call it opera, he calls it a conversation piece. It’s an opera about music and words, so an opera about opera. It has always the prejudice that it is sort of brainy and wordy, it’s not an easy piece for an audience who doesn’t understand the language in which its sung. So what I hope, is that the way we are doing the piece, even for an audience which does not understand every word, they will get a flavor and enjoyment out of this very witty discussion about whether the words or the music is more important.
What are you hoping people will walk away with?
What I hope, and what one always hopes doing something like this, is that an audience will sort of enjoy and get excited by what we do. And you can only do that if you’ve got a strong belief in the piece. I think if you don’t believe in the piece, you should not touch it, or at least that’s my conviction. You want your excitement about Mozart or Strauss, Wagner or whatever, to feed into your work and then equally excite, entertain and engage the audience.