A night at the opera
Peter Howson has emerged from Bosnia’s nightmare world to create the setting for Scottish Opera‘s Don Giovanni. He speaks to Kathleen Morgan.
Sitting in the gloom of the Theatre Royal auditorium in Glasgow. watching his vision come to life under the deft hand of the lighting technician. Peter Howson has come a long way from Bosnia‘s frontline.
Britain‘s former war artist for Bosnia. who returned from the war/one for the second time last year. has spent the past few months negotiating an entirely different set of hurdles. The nightmares of mutilated bodies marking the bloody boundaries of war have been replaced by nocturnal visions of Mozart's Dun (iiurmmi — with liowson himself in the starring role.
The Glasgow Boy who in the 1980s won the hearts of the an establishment and the celebrity world alike — .‘yladonna's and David Bowie‘s included -- has come home. littlisled by Scottish Opera to design the costumes and sets of their new production [)0]! Giovanni. Howson has temporarily put aside thoughts of returning to Bosnia and hired himself a stage design agent.
.»\pproached by director of Don (inn-mini John (‘ox last September. liowson accepted the job but found himself initially uninspired by Mozart‘s opera. ‘l hated Mozart's music — i had to force myselro listen to Drill (iiuvnnnif says the artist bluntly. His inertia was short liy ed. In true Howson fashion. he became obsessed by the opera after a trip to Austria. ‘After about a month. I didn‘t really have the inspiration. I was about to shelve it. but on a trip to Austria for two weeks. I dreamt about it every night. I used to have
Peter Howson: ‘The adrenaline keeps me oing.’
nightmares about Bosnia. now i have nightmares about Don Giovanni.‘
Asked if he takes his tricks from the Robert De Niro school of method acting. Howson laughs. nodding: ‘Like in Raging Bull. when De Niro made himself fat'.’ I went from hating Dun (iiuvunni to loving it. i had to imagine what it was like to be Dun Giovanni and every other character.‘
l-iowson began working frantically. eventually
‘I used to have nightmares about Bosnia, now I have nightmares about Don Giovanni.’
producing more than 400 drawings of costumes and sets. a story board and a model box — a miniature version of his stage creation. Some of these are to be exhibited by Roger Billcliffe. who recently became liowson‘s Scottish agent.
The artist has been careful to see his vision through from sketches to the fully-blown stage sets constructed in Scottish ()pera‘s Glasgow workshop. in the fortnight before Don (iiuvumn‘s opening.
Howson was working sixteen-hour days. sometimes i sleeping for only two hours at night. it is the way he loves to work: ‘The adrenaline keeps me going. I know the night after the opera l‘m going to be dead for about a week.‘
A fortnight before the curtain is raised on llowson's sets. the Theatre Royal‘s lighting and technical crew is going to work on them. llowson sits watching the scenery switch moods as the lights change. rising every now and then to murmer his own comments. Although he feels his presence has been vital throughout. he insists flexibility is the key to his new role as set designer. ‘Thc only way to do it is to become totally involved in it and not to become too ' precious about your designs.‘ he say s.
i This is Howson's first foray into the world of stage design. and probably not his last. Renowned for the figurative paintings of Glasgow low life and the
' Bosnia work that showed a tnaturer man pushed to
2 his artistic and mental limits. he has revelled in his new theatrical role. With almost childish enthusiasm. he explains the experience of seeing people walk into
i his sets: ‘lt's like watching people walk about in your
: paintings. it‘s a fantastic feeling.‘
After the final touches are coitipiclc‘. all that remains is for Howson to face the music - he must take a bow
on the opening night of [ion (iiuvmmi — and to let his nine-year-old daughter down gently. She has been boasting to friends that her father has designed the stage set for Jon Bon Jovi.
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dream:— Trust me too
‘There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen . . . The world will offer itself to be unmasked, it can’t do otherwise, in raptures it will writhe before you.’ This quote came to artist John Shankie via intellectual literary funster George Perec who in turn translated and paraphrased it from the intellectual literary doomster Franz Kafka. Shankie felt that this particular quote was a suitable introduction to his new show alongside three other artists all of whom are bound by the common denominator of ‘creating
Meal by John Shankie
environments where identities change and familiar actions take on a new
like many new artists working in Central Scotland the show appears to boast an air of ‘conceptualism’ about it - a term recently derided by many who regarded the Tramway’s Trust exhibition as about accessible as The Bank of Scotland’s main vault. ‘Could my work be called conceptual? - Absolutely!’ says Shankie confidently. ‘If people want to put tabs on my work then fine but I say it’s art and is in a gallery to be looked at and if it . confuses and provokes then that’s
Though he adds that his work is perhaps more accessible than Trust
given the deployment of familiar and domestic objects, Shankie aims to subvert their normal or natural functions by pairing disparate objects together and examining ‘banal incidents like the art of eating, which are usually beneath serious enquiry’. By means of example he says, ‘l’ve got a piece called Versus which is an old Littlewoods football coupon that I scanned into the computer, dated it
3 for today and replaced the names of
; the football teams with conflicts happening in the world like Russia vs Chechen Rebels. It’s undermining everyday things.’ (Ann Donald)
John Shankie is at Tramway with Jonathan Monk, Edward Stewart/Stephanie Smith until 24 Sept.
The List 8-21 Sept 1995 59