The man behind the magic

Robert Schaub's blend of style and tech know-how helps to give Seattle Opera's Magic Flute its spark

 Who says you can’t be a techie and artistic? Certainly not Robert Schaub, who is going beyond his usual behind-the-scenes role as Seattle Opera’s technical director to co-design the set for The Magic Flute.

Serendipity played a part in Schaub co-designing with Robert Dahlstrom for the company’s upcoming production of Mozart’s most fantastical opera, opening May 7. It all started when Schaub was showing Chris Alexander, director of The Magic Flute, productions they could rent, but none were lighting Alexander’s fire.

Expanding on the opera’s original setting of Egypt, Schaub suggested placing the opera inside a pyramid and including special effects and magic that would evoke an Indiana Jones film.

“What if we put our Magic Flute inside a pyramid and he steps on a stone that activates this fantasy world?” Schaub asked.

Schaub tossed out the notion of performers costumed with jackal heads like Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, move items onto and off the stage.

Alexander liked Schaub’s ideas and asked him to design the set. Schaub realized the hefty demands of his existing job would not allow him to give full attention to set designing. As Seattle Opera’s technical director since 1989, Schaub is responsible for all scenery and technical elements of each production, as well as the technical department’s budget. In addition, his department oversees production rentals, all of the company’s facilities, and building at the company’s scenic shop for Seattle Opera and other companies. So Dahlstrom was brought on board.

Schaub has a long, fruitful history of creative collaboration with Alexander and Dahlstrom beginning with an unexpectedly challenging production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 2000. Seattle Opera had brought in the set from a Canadian opera company sight unseen. The set turned out to be an unusable mess.

“There was even a rat’s nest. So at the eleventh hour, Chris [Alexander] needed a redesign. I said, ‘I know this local designer, and I think you’d get along well.’”

The result was an impressive set featuring a massive wall packed with gold encrusted icons of saints. Since then the trio has teamed up on several new Seattle Opera productions: Fidelio in 2002, Ariadne auf Naxos in 2004, Tales of Hoffman in 2005 and Don Giovanni in 2007.

Seattle Opera is fully utilizing its bag of high-tech tricks to conjure up the illusory universe of The Magic Flute.

“There are 20 scenes in this magical world with all of these magical things happening.”

Among the devices is “black theater,” in which a black light on a darkened stage causes certain objects to appear to float through the air. Another technical tactic is projections. For example, Schaub says, the curtain in front of the stage will actually be a scrim with a projection of a curtain on it. When the curtain projection opens, it reveals a map. A red line moves along the map to show Tamino’s location.

Of course, machines don’t always work.

“And the more higher-tech, the more opportunity there is for breakdowns.”

So Seattle Opera staff prepares for productions with what Schaub calls a previsualization lab in which “things are timed to the nth degree,” plus contingency plans for every conceivable glitch. Fortunately for Seattle Opera, Schaub is not intimidated by mishaps.

“I frankly like it when ‘uh oh’ happens. I’m interested in what you do then because that’s a measure of our mettle.”

Seattle Opera’s “The Magic Flute” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Saturday, May 7 through Saturday, May 21 . Prices $25-240. Tickets/information: 389-7676,


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