Laura Davis goes behind the scenes at Welsh National Opera, which is bringing three productions to Liverpool next week
STEPPING backstage at Welsh National Opera’s waterfront Millennium Centre gives you an idea of what it must have been like for Alice down the rabbit hole.
One moment you’re squeezed into a tiny room, packed with rows and rows of wigs perched on expressionless polystyrene heads – the next you are pipsqueak-small inside a giant rehearsal space with scenery soaring overhead.
And, from what I am told on my visit, it takes as much effort to squish an ample operatic figure into a stage corset as it does to keep a dormouse away long enough for a cuppa at a Hatter’s tea party.
A short drive from the Millennium Centre, which is also home to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is Cardiff Theatrical Services – a commercial subsidiary of WNO that builds sets for external clients as well as for the organisation’s own operatic productions.
Designs begin 25 times smaller than the finished product so that they may be tweaked before being created at full size.
One of the people behind the transformation from tiny to towering – Alice-like once more – is Liverpool-born Ian Siddall.
The 58-year-old scenic art manager stayed in Cardiff after studying art there in the 1970s.
“At the time it was quite hard to find work in Liverpool,” he explains.
“About a year after leaving university, I bumped into someone who was working here on a casual basis and I liked the sound of it.
“In 1980, a full-time job came up which I thought I’d do for a year and then go back to my studio but I never left.”
As well as working on WNO productions, Siddall has helped build sets for shows staged all over the world, from London’s Royal Opera House to the New York Met.
For Sir Cameron Macintosh’s revival of Oliver!, he helped construct a 6m-high replica of St Paul’s Cathedral.
“That was great,” he says. “Cameron Macintosh said it was the best he’d ever seen and sent us a signed photo saying ‘who needs Christopher Wren?’.
“I also worked with David Hockney, who was a real character. He was really down to earth – I had faggots, peas and chips with him. His models were 1:5 scale and were basically his paintings.”