Exhibition work

April 27th 2017

This week I've finished my piece of work for the next Letter Exchange exhibition 'Orchestra of Letters' which opens at The Lettering Arts Trust building at Snape Maltings in June. The exhibition coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Snape Concert Hall. I chose words from Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, Aschenbach's final speech which sums up the themes of the opera. Death in Venice was originally a novella by Thomas Mann and was made into a film in 1971. Myfanwy Piper wrote the libretto (her words are used by permission of Faber Music Ltd, London) and I saw a production at Snape in 2013 created by the Aldeburgh Festival in collaboration with Bregenz, Lyon and Prague and directed by Yoshi Oida. The staging of this production was devised specifically for the Snape Concert Hall which is a simple structure with plain brick walls. The mainly white, grey and black costumes and wooden decking between channels of water gave a clean simplicity and feeling of purity, echoing a theme of the story.


I wanted to hold on to these impressions as I made my piece of work. But that was so very difficult. Time and time again, I had to pare down my ideas and chosen elements so that the work didn't get too visually complicated. It's a long story of what went in then went out, how I had to simplify the layout, structure and technical details. I needed to keep going back to my original impression of the opera, its content and its visual impact on me, set alongside the clarity and simplicity of the music. 

Here are some of the trials that I did and subsequently rejected as being too far removed from my original impression. Useful trials of course, but it is always hard to let go of ideas that one can see potential for.

A page of trials from my notebook

A page of trials from my notebook

In the end, the elements that remained were to do with colour: the brick red of the walls, the hint of blue of the Venice water which came in the lighting of the opera, the white and grey of the costumes and the linear quality of the set and stage. I painted the text onto vellum and it is fixed by tabs that sit between the sides and linings of a box-tray, covered in dyed linen, the outside terracotta, the inside blue/green. Here is a picture of the finished piece - well, almost finished....

....because I decided to add lighting behind the vellum. Throughout this project I'd been in consultation with my brother Rob Kearley who was the revival director for Death in Venice in Snape (and other venues around the world too). He suggested the idea of lighting to me and at first I couldn't see how it would work. He kept gently pushing me though and this is how it looks with the lights on, the vellum becomes luminous and the blue shadow comes through. When the opera is revived in different places, large canvas panels are behind the set, lit with terracotta or blue. The Snape Hall remains crucial to this Opera North's production.