Last week the architect Rafael Viñoly was speaking—not kindly—about colleagues of his who think they can do things besides make buildings. “This is a profession,” he said dryly, “that generates an enormous amount of arrogance.”
Some architects have tried to design clothes; others, high-end chairs. Still others have attempted to design sets for operas, a phenomenon that goes back to at least 1816, when the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel created iconic backdrops for Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
This last group—the architects who spend their off-hours doing opera—is one that has gotten rather hip in recent years, growing to include famous contemporary masters like Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and even Rafael Viñoly. Mr. Viñoly, 67, the principal of his blazingly successful eponymous firm and the designer of buildings from the Tokyo International Forum to Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, doesn’t pretend that he’s immune to the temptation to try other arts. In 2004, he designed the sets for a production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Bard SummerScape festival, and he worked on a Chicago Opera Theater production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria in 2007.
This summer Mr. Viñoly has returned to the Bard festival to design (with Mimi Lien) the sets for New York’s first fully staged production of the sumptuous Strauss rarity Die Liebe der Danae, which opens on Friday, at Bard’s theater in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; it’s directed by Kevin Newbury and conducted by Leon Botstein.
“Architects feel empowered to give opinions about politics and sociology and philosophy without knowing much about it,” Mr. Viñoly said by phone from Beijing, where his firm is building an engineering school. “Kind of in the same way that they think they can design furniture or fashion or utensils for dining. I think architects tend to believe that they can almost do anything, which is a wonderful characteristic, but in some cases you just fall flat. Theatrical design is just a completely different vocabulary. It’s a very, very difficult thing to do well.”
He’s right: when architects play set designer, the results can be iffy. There was a mixed response to Mr. Libeskind’s designs for a production of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise in Berlin in 2002. Last year Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who designed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, made their Metropolitan Opera debuts with a visually muddled production of Verdi’s early opera Attila (Miuccia Prada did the Mad Max-esque costumes; it was a boldface-names kind of night). Santiago Calatrava designed five sets for a 2010 New York City Ballet festival called “Architecture of Dance”; a couple of the designs were pretty enough, but they seemed to have little to do with the dances.
Mr. Viñoly, though, has largely been praised. The Wall Street Journal wrote of the Chicago production of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, “It’s the rare unit set that works so well.” His elegant set for The Nose at Bard in 2004 appeared to be made of corrugated metal, with the geometric edges and sharp angles of old Russian Constructivist posters. It was a success, as was his very different design for Bard’s Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation, which opened in 2007. Atop a little hill at the center of campus, the building, with its glass facade, curves sinuously.
“Sometimes it becomes self-referential and detached from the piece,” he said of the theatrical work some architects do, but his own designs have seemed straightforward and self-effacing, intelligent and resonant with the work at hand. Much like his buildings, they know when and how to assert themselves.
Mr. Viñoly comes by opera honestly: his father directed productions for the National Opera in his native Uruguay, and Mr. Viñoly himself studied piano from an early age. He even considered a career as a musician before choosing architecture in his late teens. “There’s something about the tempo of opera that I’ve always been interested in,” he said, and he and Mimi Lien, his collaborator on Die Liebe der Danae, have created a shifting, modern environment for the opera’s bittersweet love plot.
“We wanted to make it into something in a way very cinematic,” Mr. Viñoly said, “creating levels of intimacy and grandeur. The whole idea is that instead of having a vertical sort of transformation of the stage in which everything comes from the top or bottom, in this case everything comes from the sides. By virtue of that, you start seeing the scene move and the different configurations of the space are created in front of your eyes.”
There’s something about the serene boxlike shapes of Mr. Viñoly’s new addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art that’s reminiscent of his pared-down boxlike set for Il Ritorno d’Ulisse. It’s possible, in other words, to trace vague connections between Mr. Viñoly’s set designs and his buildings, but he discourages them.
“They’re parallel, not intersecting interests, and … that is what [is] valuable for me,” he said. “In theater, you’re always working on something which by definition is temporary. That is in and of itself a gigantic difference. What we do in architecture has a different sense of responsibility. It’s always about the future performance of the building. In the theater, everything is ephemeral. Everything is almost weightless and without a very clear definition of how you made it.”