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Set Design for Musical Productions
Raimonda Bitinaitė-Širvinskienė
Modernism and folk traditions
One of the traits of modernization in theatre was the effort to highlight the specific characteristics of different genres of theatre. Art historian Veronika Kulešova noted in 1964 that:
[there was a] long-held opinion, formed after the war, that there was no difference between dramatic and musical theatre decorations. The specific character of the latter had been lost, despite the fact that musical theatre traditions here, like in other countries, ran quite deep. Veronikos Kulešovos kalba teatro dailės konferencijoje 1964 12 14, in: Protokolas LTSR kultūros ministerijai, 1965 01 15, p. 7.
Set designs for musical productions in the 1960s began to invoke folk traditions and interpretations of early 20th century modernism.
The early traditions of Russian abstractionist art found fertile ground in Lithuanian ballet set design. Significant changes took place on the ballet stage in the 20th century, starting with the production seasons of Sergei Diaghilev to the discovery of Kazimir Malevich's "square" and the stunning geometrical costume abstractions in Mikhail Matyushin's opera Victory Over the Sun (1913). The musical abstractionist painter Wassily Kandinsky enriched expressionism in musical productions with his combinations of contrasting colours. Fluid forms sought to embody flight and energy.
Formalist pursuits that were already being embraced in the world, yet which were unacceptable to Soviet realism, should, in theory, no longer have posed a concern for later (and certainly milder) similar experiments on Lithuanian stages.  One of the few examples of set design that approximated geometric abstractionism arrived on the Lithuanian ballet stage only in 1963, created by Juozas Jankus (then already widely recognised for his work) for a production of Prokofyev's opera Love for Three Oranges.  The production's set designs did not evoke any specific images. Rather, abstract geometric shapes and colour combinations were likened to music and did not represent any realistic forms.
Though the artist of early set versions, Viktorija Gatavynaitė, was accused of formalism, since her designs contained "too much abstraction," Valstybinio operos ir baleto teatro meno tarybos posėdžio protokolas, 1963 02 09, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 97, ap. 1, b. 182. the geometrically abstract set design was approved immediately. This case demonstrates the importance of an artist's recognition for the implementation of innovations, as well as the influence younger artists had on their older colleagues.
Lithuanian set designers were stunned by expressionist and surrealist experiments being conducted in musical productions in Western Europe that carried over into Polish, Czechoslovak and Russian opera and ballet. Opera in Czechoslovakia stood out for its surrealist expressionism, in which human irrationality was revealed through collage (mosaic) connections between various incompatible plot locations and objects (for example in Trester's designs for Verdi's Aida in 1957, or Paul Hindemith's opera Cardillac in 1964).
In Poland, artists freely incorporated various materials, with textures of imagery compositions woven like a collage into the structure of a production (as in Andrzej Majewski's designs for Stravinsky's ballet Orpheus in 1963). Polish and Russian set designers (Andrzej Pronaszko, Vadim Ryndin) revealed the tragic powerlessness of protagonists through expressionist, hyperbolised and associative forms.
While it may still have been impossible to employ surrealist imagery on the more publically visible and official opera and ballet stages, expressionist solutions were found that helped demonstrate that Lithuanian artists were not standing idly on the sidelines. A 1966 production of Antanas Rekašius' ballet Gęstantis kryžius (Fading Cross), with set design by the young artist Antanas Pilipavičius, stood out with its expressive, dynamic, contrastingly laconic form and intensive changes in lighting. Pilipavičius made his mark on the musical stage, helping to revive Lithuanian ballet with his innovative solutions, but he withdrew from theatrical art soon thereafter.
Artists designing sets for musical productions drew inspiration from folk art. Led by the artist Andrzej Stopka, Polish set designs began featuring multi-layered structures resembling szopkas (crèches) and simple, even primitive, costumes and motifs reminiscent of folk sculpture and architecture. Adam Killian applied folk art in a different manner, showing a fascination for the vibrant colouring of folk paintings reproduced on glass and rural materials such as wicker and straw, from which he fashioned mannequins. Modern interpretations of religious icons were created by Russian artists such as Eduard Kochergin.
The young Lithuanian set designer Dalia Mataitienė transformed music into emotional imagery through the use of folk art carvings. For a 1961 production of Yury Milyutin's operetta Chanita's Kiss, she created a fictional reality using flattened motifs arranged in thick lines and ornamental figures.
Influenced by modernism, folk art and fantasy, set designs for Lithuanian musical productions expressed a desire for interpretative freedom and the importance of national values that prevailed in the 1960s.
Fluid symphonism
Lithuanian set design earned a prominent place on the path to modernisation of European set design in one respect: its discoveries in musical fluidity.
It is important here to take note of similar pursuits in German musical theatre taking place at the same time, notably in the work of Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner (the grandsons of Richard Wagner), who sought to join musical and spatial scale to create a harmony of light and music on the legendary stage in Bayreuth.
Only on the Lithuanian musical stage, however, were the shapes of reality transformed into musical expression through artistic means. Abstract shapes with musical equivalents rhythmically arranged on flat planes played an important role. Influenced by the idea of synaesthesia (when musical or other artistic sensations are embodied by the modalities of another field of art), set designs took on the harmony of colours and lines characteristic of the works of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.
Set imagery designed by one of the most prolific musical theatre designers, Regina Songailaitė, for a 1958 production at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre of Vytautas Klova's opera Vaiva was heavily influenced by the work of M.K. Čiurlionis. Songailaitė created compositions in which images corresponded to musical consonance. The artist rhythmically arranged abstract, crowned figures against a blue background, revealing in imagery the pulsating dynamic of music and the symbolic meaning of the narrative.
The Lithuanian artist Liudas Truikys distinguished himself from other artists early on. He was the first to begin searching for harmony between music and imagery. In his set designs, Truikys demonstrated his aim to liberate himself from passive illustrations in musical productions, combining a modernist, rational structure with archaic, massive forms. Majestic triangular lines, recurring throughout the composition of sets and costumes in a production of Verdi's opera Don Carlo (1959; depicted in Figures 4 and 5), created dramatic, fluid chords. Truikys wrote:
I take only the pure architectural structure and I repeat it. I'm not afraid of monotony... For me, these groupings encompass both individual harmonies and individual chords. One can create the entire piano keyboard from resonating trajectories, from obtuse to acute angles.  And one does not always have to use straight lines. Cit. iš: Vytautas Tumėnas, „Vydūno pasekėjas“, Krantai, 1991, Nr. 11–12, p. 15.
The sets design for Don Carlos enchanted audiences, who rewarded the production with ovations immediately upon the parting of the stage curtain. Vytautas Mažeika, Opera: lietuvių tarybinio operos teatro raida (1940–1965), Vilnius: Vaga, 1967, p. 180.
Truikys perfected his musical expression in designs for the operas La Traviata (in 1966) and Gražina (in 1968). He was thorough in his work, spending considerable time seeking out materials that could link the musical theme with imagery.  By his own admission, Truikys once "spent two years looking for a way to approach" a design. Cit. iš: Vytautas Tumėnas, „Menų sintezė operoje“, Kultūros barai, 1987, Nr. 7, p. 16.
On several occasions, theatres had to assign commissions to other artists after failing to receive any work from Truikys. Such was the case for a 1963 production of Aida: Truikys' designs never reached the stage, replaced instead by those created by one of his students, Regina Songailaitė. Under the direction of Truikys, Songailaitė defended her dissertation with her set designs for Aida, even travelling to Egypt for research, but her ambitions did not match those of her teacher. Aida appeared with sets designed by Truikys only in 1975.
Truikys' creative work had an impact on other designers. for example, in the previously discussed work by Jurgis Jankus on ballet productions (Balsys' Eglė žalčių karalienė [Eglė, Queen of the Serpents], 1960; A. Račiūnas' Saulės miestas [City of the Sun], 1965), in which similarly geometric, repeating patterns of abstract set motifs were rhythmically woven into thin screens, lending a poetic softness to the dramatic spirit of the productions.
Viktorija Gatavynaitė's work for Léo Delibes' Sylvia (in 1961, Figure 6) was laconic and musical, embracing empty spaces. A few vertical lines were displayed against a black background, reinforcing an association with musical parts played by stringed instruments.
Alternative stages
A newly vibrant public life, with its openness and thirst for freedom, fed the desire of theatres to escape the confines of their stages and to seek alternative spaces in which to express the spirit of a new time, encouraging theatres to move their productions to sports arenas, exhibit halls, churches, circuses, or out into the streets. Some productions in the 1960s were mounted under an open sky, much like the avant-garde experimental pieces of the early 20th century. In Vilnius, for example, in then Kutuzov (now Daukanto) Square, Regina Songailaitė boldly adapted a production of Verdi's exotic Aida to the surrounding palette of Vilnius' Old Town. A production of Balys Dvarionas' Dalia was staged on Žvelgaitis Hill in Verkiai, a location chosen specifically by set designer Vytautas Palaima because of the hill motif that dominated the piece.
Juozas Jankus was considered to be a particularly active, "clever and inventive organizer of 'productions in nature', able to <...> amusingly link sets to the surrounding landscape" Jonas Mackonis-Mackevičius, Lietuvos teatrų muzikinių spektaklių scenografija: Daktaro disertacija, Vilnius: Istorijos institutas, 1967, p. 205. and select the proper lighting. Productions organized by Jankus for J. Juzeliūnas' ballet Ant marių kranto (On the Seashore) were staged in Naujoji Vilnia, Šilutė and Pasvalys. Vytautas Klova's opera Pilėnai was performed in many different locations, receiving considerable attention as well as mixed reactions.
People and cars would crowd the roads well before the start of the show, holding signs that read 'Everyone to Pilėnai'. An abstract stage was set up in the valley with projectors and loudspeakers. The slopes of the amphitheatre were covered with spectators. <...> Audiences were stunned by Jankus' pyrotechnics during the finale, and when the actors began ascending the burning tower, some audience members began to cry–and one even began to wail. Jonas Mackonis, Boružės odisėjos, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2003, p. 176, 177. 
The same production was met with a hail of rotten tomatoes and eggs when it was staged to avoid possible anti-Soviet sentiment. This occurred in the autumn of 1956, with the return to the company of soloist and former political prisoner Antanas Kučingis. Tickets sold out in less than one day to a production of Faust, in which Kučingis was to have sung the part of Mephistopheles. Without warning, Faustas was replaced by Pilėnai, provoking the anger of audiences.
Lithuanian productions staged in various historical locations were, to be sure, nothing like the noisy, avant-garde stagings meant to shock the viewing public.  They had more of the ritualistic feeling commonly found in more amateurish productions. Yet these thoughtfully produced reproductions of historical events helped revive a general cultural memory and confer contemporary relevance to past history, creating a sense of belonging and fostering a greater interest in theatre and, most importantly, helping to expose Soviet manipulations of history.


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Sources and links

Valstybinio operos ir baleto teatro meno tarybos posėdžio protokolas, 1963 02 09
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 97, ap. 1, b. 182
Veronikos Kulešovos kalba teatro dailės konferencijoje 1964 12 14
Protokolas LTSR kultūros ministerijai, 1965 01 15 (dailininko Vytauto Palaimos dokumentacija, dabar jo sūnaus Juozo Palaimos nuosavybė)
Jonas Mackonis
Boružės odisėjos
Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2003
Jonas Mackonis-Mackevičius
Lietuvos teatrų muzikinių spektaklių scenografija
Daktaro disertacija, Vilnius: Istorijos institutas, 1967
Vytautas Mažeika
Opera: lietuvių tarybinio operos teatro raida (1940–1965)
Vilnius: Vaga, 1967
Vytautas Tumėnas
Vilnius: Vaga, 1967
Kultūros barai, 1987, Nr. 7, p. 12–17
Vytautas Tumėnas
„Vydūno pasekėjas“
Krantai, 1991, Nr. 11–12, p. 12–15
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