Marsha Ginsberg has worked on the design of more than 20 opera sets. An installation artist, photographer, and acclaimed visual designer, she’s traveled the world for ideas, but it was a local landmark that recently inspired her set for the Spoleto opera Proserpina. Tuesday night, Ginsberg spoke to a small group at the Aiken-Rhett House about how the 1818 home became the blueprint for the Spoleto selection.
“Proserpina is a very abstract piece,” Ginsberg explained. “It’s based on the myth of Persephone, who’s taken to the Underworld. It’s a dark piece with no possibility of escape.” In keeping with the mythical theme, Ginsberg chose to use the decrepit, albeit once great, mansion as the setting of the opera — and the Aiken-Rhett House fit the bill.
Early on in the production, Ginsberg happened to tour the Aiken-Rhett House, and she was particularly interested in the state of preservation rather than restoration within the house. “There’s a bedroom upstairs with wallpaper that had a pattern on it but white paint over it, it was like seeing the ghosts of what the pattern was before,” Ginsberg said. She loved the somewhat supernatural feel of a home falling apart, and chose to incorporate wilting wallpaper into her design.
The real serendipitous moment, however, was when Ginsberg walked into the main foyer and discovered a bust of the Persephone. Incidentally, the original owners of the property, Governor William and Harriet Aiken, purchased the bust in Florence, Italy during a tour of Europe from 1857-58. The Historic Charleston Foundation uncovered the fact that the statue was originally built in 1844 by Hiram Powers, famed artists living in Italy known lovingly as the “Americanova.” With an omen like that, Ginsberg knew the house had to become her muse.
The statue wasn’t the only means of inspiration for Ginsberg, however. Aiken-Rhett’s crumbling plaster walls, exposed ceiling beams, and gallery skylight all served as compelling pieces to the Proserpina puzzle. Along with her set design, Ginsberg is also the opera's costume mistress, and discussed her weeks of flea market and thrift shopping in preparation for the show. “Clothes are so specific, so we’ve been trying to put Heather (lead singer) in something specific yet ambiguous,” Ginsberg said.
The designer's motivation was to build a set and costume selection that evoked a feeling without stating the obvious. While some directors take a literal approach and suggest that the Proserpina set is hell, Ginsberg said director Ken Rus Schmoll preferred a different approach and Spoleto’s version exposed the Underworld as walls telling time. In this work the chorus, which is typically hidden, becomes part of the action along with the orchestra, which will be visible and seated on found chairs. The challenge for Ginsberg was placing all her Aiken-Rhett-inspired ideas in the somewhat constricting Memminger Auditorium. “I think we went through maybe 15 different set designs,” she said, “with three or four additional changes.” Right now in lighting rehearsals, Ginsberg explained that details are still being modified, and although a few changes are yet to be made, you can bet it will be quite a sight for all Spoletians come curtain.