The inspiration behind ‘The Tales of Hoffman’

The inspiration behind ‘The Tales of Hoffman’

By Daisy Ions

The mood board for the production shows a female head swathed in medical bandages, a 3D computer graphic of a woman’s body, and rows of large glass tanks resting on metal tables, each holding a pig’s torso and glowing a mysterious chemical green. And then there’s a languorous woman, her sleek brown skin glowing with silver dust and her eyes infinitely cool. Is this opera or James Bond?

Michael Mitchell, set designer for Cape Town Opera, was involved in the CTO’s last production of ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ way back in 1998 when most of the current cast were in primary school. That production was set in a mental hospital. This time he is planning something rather different.

Mitchell explains his inspiration for the upcoming production as “the remaking of people the way we’d like to see ourselves”. “It’s not so much ‘Rocky Horror’ as ‘Nip/Tuck’”, he says. The obvious reference is the character of Olympia – the ‘perfect’ woman, and one of Hoffman’s first loves in the story.

In Offenbach’s original Olympia turns out to be a robot. In the hands of Mitchell and director Angelo Gobbato, Olympia has become the victim of one too many plastic surgery operations. But the emphasis on ‘remaking’ is also a reference to the reformation of Hoffman by his muse, who determines to shake him of his writer’s block by taking him on a journey through his past lives and loves. Neither Mitchell nor Gobbato are keen to give too much away, so excited are they by the design of this production, but hints they let fall include images as diverse as ‘street hoodlums’ and ‘laboratory’, ‘nightclub’ and ‘Miss Havisham’, ‘magic’ and ‘lap dance’… Mitchell and Gobbato have clearly been doing research in some unusual places.

The colours for the production tend towards the sci-fi: coppers, silvers, blacks and greens, and the inclination is less towards gothic gruesomeness than medical (and psychological) manipulation. With that in mind it makes sense that the orchestra is on stage for this production: all the ‘devices’ of manipulation being made apparent to the viewer as the Muse tunes the strings of Hoffman’s inspiration.

The result is neatly self-referential. ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ is widely known to be an unfinished work, and one constantly under revision, so what better reference than its protagonist and his loves being reviewed, revisited, remade? And in the end the Muse achieves her aim, inspiring Hoffman to slough off his old life and begin again with a new outlook, a new vigour, a new eagerness to complete his work. As James Bond would say: you only live twice.

* Presented by Cape Town Opera in collaboration with the UCT Opera School, ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ will be performed at the Artscape Theatre on November 24, 27, 28 and 29 at 7.30pm and on Sunday November 25 at 6pm. Parental Guidance is advised. Tickets cost R100 to R 175, with the Sunday performance running at a special discounted price of R50. Tickets are available through Computicket or Dial-a-Seat.
The first two performances are already fully booked.