Behind the scenes of South Pacific

AussieTheatre’s Ben Neutze met with Tony Award winning designer Michael Yeargan (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific) last week for a sneak peek behind the scenes of South Pacific, Opera Australia’s latest musical theatre endeavour.

South Pacific Bible
All the information for recreating the South Pacific sets and props can be found within this 'bible'

Michael Yeargan’s love of set design started when he was a fourth grade primary school student in Dallas, Texas.

“I would get my mother’s shoeboxes and make scenes from the operas and take them in as class projects,” he says.

Years later, Michael has designed for opera companies all over the world, taught design at the Yale School of Drama and won two Tony awards for his work on Light in the Piazza and South Pacific. But he says that he still does “much the same thing”.

Yeargan has just spent a week in Sydney, overseeing the construction of his award-winning sets for Opera Australia’s upcoming production of South Pacific, starring Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Bringing with him his trusty ‘Scenic and Prop Bible’, Michael has been instructing the team at the Opera Australia workshop on how to recreate his Broadway designs and bring the world of South Pacific to life.

“The sets reflect a lot of different things,” he says. “We start with James Michener. So when you come into the theatre there’s a show curtain that’s actually a replica of the first page he typewrote when he was stationed in Espiritu Santo, which is now Vanuatu, during World War II.”

“It’s this beautiful description of what the south pacific was and what it became when the soldiers came.”

South Pacific Act 2 Map
South Pacific Act 2 Map

Yeargan says he first heard the score of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific as a young boy when his parents would play the soundtrack on vinyl. “They’d play those records over and over again. People were addicted to the music from it.”

He believes the show is such a major part of American culture that designing for a new Broadway production was a daunting task at first, but once he got started found it to be a very organic process. “It’s such a strong piece, it sort of designs itself,” he says.

“Most people think of it as this light-hearted, carefree show, when it’s a show that’s really about something. Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces, it’s about racism and it’s about war. Things which seemed timely in 1949 when it was written, but they’re still as timely now and we still have the same problems.”

Yeargan’s design filters the action through a series of tropical blinds and features a full size aeroplane.

The sets have been altered slightly from what was seen on Broadway to fit the stage of the Opera Theatre, but Yeargan is here to make sure Australian audiences get the same experience.

Having previously designed sets for five operas for Opera Australia, this is not Yeargan’s first visit to Australia.

South Pacific - Model Set
Michael Yeargan's set model for South Pacific

It’s his work in opera that has gained him most recognition. Because of this, Michael says it was a massive shock to win his first Tony award for his work on Light in the Piazza in 2005.

“Designers are kind of pigeon-holed for what they do, and I was sort of pigeon-holed in the opera world,” he says. “If anyone had ever told me that that would happen, I wouldn’t believe it. And then for it to happen again with South Pacific was an even greater shock.”

Australians will have the chance to see this production of South Pacific that scooped a total of seven Tony awards and was praised by the New York Times as ‘perfect’.

Opening August 11 at the Sydney Opera House, South Pacific sure to be one of the highlights of Opera Australia’s 2012 season.

A cast announcement is set to take place on April 30

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