Creating Operatic Print Design Magic in a Box

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When theaters are dark because of the pandemic, what do you do (if you’re smart)?

You send subscribers and classical music buffs an opera in a box, of course. No, three operas—actually song cycles (a group of sequenced tunes): Leoš Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, and Juliana Hall’s A World Turned Upside Down, based on Anne Frank’s diary. Collectively, they make up “The Beauty That Still Remains: Diaries in Song.”

On Site Opera, a New York–based organization that, in usual times, performs in venues that fit the settings of the stories—parks, restaurants, clubs, museums, soup kitchens—chose to present its 2020–2021 offerings via text and images (which include QR codes to listen to the music), all printed on paper and sent through the mail.

I learned about this from music critic Joshua Barone’s half-page New York Times review of “a boxed set of design artifacts.” The photos showed the kind of project that won awards in decades past: die-cut folders with foil-stamped typography, out of which spilled inserts of various kinds and sizes. Clearly, this was a graphic design story in addition to a story about how musical performances can be produced in the time of COVID. Yet the designer’s name—Stephanie Reyer—was mentioned only once. I had to hunt for it in the text. Reyer herself was easier to find: teaching an exhibition design class on Zoom for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she’s director of the Museum Exhibition Planning+Design MFA program.

Reyer, whose clients include the Museum of Chinese in America and the Museum of the American Revolution, and I soon found ourselves speaking at length about the project.

Here are some excerpts from our conversations.

As a museum designer, how did you get involved with On Site Opera?

I was introduced to OSO through mutual friends who serve on the board and advisory council. In this chaotic year, the project was a much-appreciated creative distraction. With theater and museums shut, it’s great to be part of a feel-good story in the cultural sector.

What was the brief you were presented with? Did they request folders with inserts, or did you develop the format?

OSO is all about thinking outside the box—staging operas in unconventional locations. So, perhaps ironically, the most creative solution was inside a box.

I was part of a large production team that included scholars, artistic and musical directors, writers, singers, instrumentalists, logistic wizards. But perhaps the most important collaborator is the patron: The primary piece in each box is a libretto in diary form that concludes with prompts for audience members to leave their own mark in the story and become active participants in the experience.

The team spent quite a while developing the ideas of “opera through the mail” and “operatic diaries.” The goal was to meet the audience where they are—in their homes—and create an experience that sets the stage for listening. The experience has to feel like you, the recipient, have access to an intimate artifact. Each “ticket” purchased gets you a folder that contains up to 10 pieces—the libretto-diary, an accordion-folded curatorial essay, miniature portraits, bios of the singers, even fragile dried flowers. The choreography of opening the package is as much a part of the performance as the music itself. So there’s a diversity of textures: the raffia in the shipping box, the tactile quality of the authors’ signatures foil-stamped on cover stock, even the satisfying rip of the Velcro button when you open the folder.

So this is true user experience design. Tell us about the format.

The intent was to capture the humanist qualities at the core of the music so the recipient could imagine that he or she is actually intercepting the diaries of Leoš Janáček, Virginia Woolf and Anne Frank.

In his curatorial essay, professor of English Drew Patrick Shannon described Virginia Woolf’s diary so beautifully that these words became our design directive:

“… a mottled slate grey cover. … She will always write on the recto (right-hand) pages, leaving the verso (left-hand) blank for jottings and calculations. … She develops the habit of ruling off an inch or so of space on the left side of the recto page with a blue pencil, where she will make note of the date of each entry.”

We worked to bring the words to life.

What were some of the most challenging parts of the process?

First of all, the handwriting. Professor Shannon described Virginia Woolf’s writing as “densely written … so nearly illegible as to be the butt of family jokes.” So when it came to the choice of typeface, we knew that any digital font would break the illusion. So while the performers were rehearsing and recording the music, we were auditioning handwriting talent. The first text we received, however, was almost too perfect—just as dense and illegible as Woolf’s. One unexpected task was spending hours digitally tweaking individual letters to ensure there was just enough illegibility to make it authentic yet still readable as a libretto.

For then–13-year-old Anne Frank, we wanted her handwriting to clearly be European—there is such a distinct flair to the script. We found our “Anne” with fountain pen, in Germany. The pages are filled with text running in all directions, with photos and letters tipped in. We spent a good amount of time creating line breaks and moving individual words to seamlessly flow through the interstitial spaces of Anne’s images and entries.

And for the tortured story [of] falling in love with a “Gypsy girl” [that] Janáček told in his diary, we imagined what he might have stashed between the pages. When you open his folder, you can detect a slight tint of violet—but not until the last page of the diary do you realize that real flowers are pressed into its pages.

How was all this accomplished?

Like any production, experience design is a team sport, and exhibition and theater work are very similar. We share big dreams and small budgets. We are nothing if not scrappy. As a result, this was a very fluid collaboration.

In one of our early conversations, OSO artistic director Eric Einhorn mentioned wanting this project to feel like “when my kids get a field guide from a museum.” That was clearly in my arsenal, so we seamlessly merged two creative disciplines: designing an historical exhibition within an operatic-scale field guide. What a wonderful way to think about engaging with audiences in this moment when we’re feeling so separated from one another!

Brainstorming on Zoom with members of the OSO team—with Einhorn, Executive Director Piper Gunnarson, and Director of Production Christopher Staub—was fun and full of possibilities. When we worked together to flesh out the details—from color choices to diary artifacts to interactive prompts—everyone was creating around one virtual table.

The typical client for graphic design today doesn’t go for die-cutting, foil-stamping, multiple boxed pieces. What was the rationale for the expense?

Production design in the theater is like a character in itself. Why let a pandemic stop that from being true? In the absence of being able to produce live opera, the design and packaging had to become a true theatrical experience—replacing set, costume and lighting design. To that end, we developed all the rich details at nonprofit prices.

Much of design is working within constraints, and the pandemic has magnified them. Printers were—and are—running short-staffed; many vendors have temporarily shut down production for COVID-related reasons. Supplies are low, so for visual cues we relied on what we could control—illustrating textures, even mimicking dirt and distress, hand-crumpling pieces of vellum. Fortunately, we found accessible vendors—from California to France—that provided beautiful stationery and folders, custom corrugated mailers, stickers, beads and buttons, archival bookbinding supplies, and even pressed botanicals.

We produced an original run of 275 of each diary. Patrons can purchase them à la carte or buy the entire series with one diary mailed every two or three weeks. It’s been so popular that we’re currently printing a second run.

How was this process different from the exhibition projects you are known for?

Square footage!

Just like in any successful exhibition, it all starts with the story. The objective and process was the same—how do we tell a dynamic story in three-dimensional space that is engaging, educational and fun? Then, how can we use all the senses and a contrast of media to bring that story to life? My job is always to artfully blur the lines between entertainment and education.

Just like in an exhibition, there was choreography we wanted to walk viewers through to make this a multisensory experience. The star “artifact,” of course, is the music itself, but we needed to build scaffolding around it and create an immersive experience within three folders and a 7.25 x 10 x 1-inch box. It’s a museum in a box—intrigue, relevance, media, curatorial context … all with significantly smaller square footage.

For more information about the song cycles, producers, performers, and more, click here. Individual diaries are available for $45 and the complete set can be purchased for $120. Online “Virtual Diary Discussions” with scholars, composers and musicians are free for ticket buyers and $10 for non-ticket buyers.