Familiar settings turn strange in Marsha Ginsberg’s stage designs. A New England house, a Berlin apartment, and a maze of low-rent Brooklyn offices provide incongruous locales for works of opera and staged song. Disheveled spaces show signs of human use: peeling wallpaper, chipped paint, water-stained plaster, an unmade bed.
Ginsberg studied art at New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and then the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in the early 1980s, where she became fascinated with the media-based work of Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, and Hans Haacke. This intellectual background shaped Ginsberg’s thinking as she pursued an MFA in theater design at New York University. Over the past five years, she has emerged as a distinctive voice in the vanguard of international theater. Ginsberg’s set designs build compressed and layered spaces that close in with claustrophobic intensity on the human drama they support.
Imeneo, directed by Christopher Alden, transports George Frideric Handel’s Baroque family drama onto the frigid soil of mid-nineteenth- century America. The opera unfolds on the roof of a white, somewhat battered New England house; additional action is glimpsed through its dirty windows (including a father sniffing his daughters’ discarded petticoats). In Act III, the dining room is excised from the interior to sit on top of the roof. As Ginsberg explains, “The absent fourth wall is a long-standing convention in stage design. I like to suggest a physical process of cutting away that fourth wall. The floor is cut to reveal the joists; the walls show layers of plaster and lathe.”
The set for In Mahler’s Shadow, a two-part enactment of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler, consists of a grim, windowless corner whose shabby furnishings and precisely curated hardware details such as wall plugs and light switches recreate an apartment in post-reunification Berlin. Each cycle is sung by a different occupant of the apartment in a different slice of time. For Georges Bizet’s Carmen—set in present-day Brooklyn— Ginsberg designed a suite of generic offices, built on a turntable. Don Jose, cast as a security guard, observes his beloved Carmen from a bank of video monitors that allows the audience to participate in his voyeuristic obsessions and to peer into hidden parts of the set.