Oral history

Events surrounding the making of the Berlin production

In pursuit of pioneering three-dimensional scenery design for the ballet, Barry Kay achieved his greatest breakthrough on a large scale with his magnificent designs for The Sleeping Beauty at the Deutsche Oper Berlin – but not without obstacles. Its staging was by no means an ordinary venture. At first, the theatre’s general intendant, Gustav Rudolf Sellner, thought it out of the question to mount Kay’s lavishly designed costumes and, more so, the elaborate scenery, as it required a phenomenal amount of money never before allocated to a ballet, let alone being available for an undertaking of such magnitude.

In an interview, part of a documentary about his professional life, Kay recalls: “One of the first things I really questioned was using the ballet as a means of being able to make very quick changes in the repertory from opera to ballet. It was convenient that the ballet did not have any substantial scenery; it was really the poor cousin [of the opera]. It was not easy to make that change acceptable for the opera houses without having to fight, and I remember the intendant of the Deutsche Oper Berlin saying, when he first saw the model: «This is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer». And Kenneth [MacMillan, choreographer], who was at the meeting, said: «Yes, that is exactly what we are trying to do».”

It took both MacMillan, serving as Director of Ballet at the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1966 to 1969, and Kay quite some convincing and persuading to move Sellner to change his mind. In talking about their co-operation when working on The Sleeping Beauty, MacMillan commented: “To have Barry there as an absolute ally – and we were on the same wavelength about working – was a tremendous help to me. What he did was absolutely tremendous and it knocked the theatre sideways. They have never seen a ballet production so sumptuously designed, and after many arguments they said: «Yes, we can do it, but it will take a year or so». So I had to persuade Barry to stay on in Berlin for a year.”

In the end, the funds were raised after all and the production did go ahead as planned. To bridge the time gap while it was in its making, MacMillan needed to create another ballet, Anastasia, also designed by Kay, which later – subsequent to their collaboration on MacMillan’s three-act version for The Royal Ballet in 1971 – became known as the original one-act version1.

Exhibition poster for stage and costume designs by Barry Kay
Galerie Hammer & Theater Europa-Center, Berlin
9-18 October 1967
adaptation of a costume drawing by Kay for The Sleeping Beauty, photographically abstracted to characterize a dancer in motion; design Michael Werner

When The Sleeping Beauty was premièred at the beginning of October 1967, the overwhelmed audience, bedazzled upon curtain rise, testified that here was epoch-making stage design. Barry Kay had created a most splendid fairy tale, set at an imaginary Tsarist court of truly palatial proportions. Marbled columns, interconnected with wide-spanning arches, an elegant grand staircase and an opulently designed throne were dominating the stage. The scenery of Act II featured an overgrown keep. The tranquil transformation scene, mounted on the revolve, unexpectedly revealed a grotto cleverly tucked beneath the stairs. Not even the backcloth escaped lavish treatment – its entire expanse was clad in 14-carat gold leaf.

The enormous extent of architectural components as much as meticulous attention to an overall coherent design concept and detail were evident everywhere. Since using traditional borders – intended to mask the lighting rig and the flys2 – did not suit Kay’s intentions, he devised a partially column-supported and partially suspended semi-circular plafond without sacrificing technical requirements. Ambitious and daring, it was a hitherto most unusual divergence from the habitual practice of operating in an environment reliant on unencumbered overhead space. And in the hunting scene, a winter setting, he demonstrated how flat vertical surfaces can be transformed creatively for three-dimensional effects: The staggered arrangement of a number of flown-in gauze flys, decorated with frosted branches, basically describing empty space, provided optical depth that was accentuated by the dancing taking place in the interstices.

Deutsches Opernhaus 3
Bismarkstraße, Berlin, 1936

Deutsche Oper Berlin
after reconstruction in 1961
Photo: Frankl / Deutsches Bundesarchiv

As the Deutsche Oper Berlin is equipped with one of the world’s largest stages, Kay had a free hand in utilizing its possibilities to the full. Not only that, but another reasons to have inspired him to design the elaborate architectural scenery on a huge scale are the technically advanced stage facilities the opera house offers, raising the temptation of taking advantage of them in his ambitious quest of innovative ballet design. After the opera house’s reconstruction, following its bombing in World War II, it reopened in 1961, fully equipped with the state-of-the-art theatre technology available at that time. Merely five years later, in 1966, when Kay began designing the production, he seized the opportunity of tapping the potential of this stage.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin spared absolutely no efforts to turn The Sleeping Beauty into a true fairytale presentation. Yet, despite their concerted endeavours, according to in-house rumour – purportedly based on hierarchical jealousy and subsequent intrigues by those who felt left out of the decision-making process in staging the ballet, and on the stagehands’ alleged deliberate maltreatment of the exceptionally vast scenery, which they intensely disliked mounting and dismantling – sadly, key staff members apparently never fully supported the production.

In consequence, the The Sleeping Beauty regrettably had an extremely short run, following which the theatre administration decided to ultimately scrap it – but noticeably not before MacMillan’s assignment at the opera house terminated in 1969. Those in charge, seemingly driven by incongruous interests, acted without any foresight whatsoever by failing to record the production audio-visually – at a time when appropriate technology did exist to easily provide the means to do so.

Notwithstanding these circumstances, this specific Sleeping Beauty was after all a most important document in the history of stage design at large, and a highlight of ballet design in particular. Alone for its merit of having been such an excellent example of breaking with stifling conventions of set design concepts for the ballet, this legendary production should never have been lost to posterity.

The Curator

A watercolour sketch by Barry Kay of the façade of the Deutsch Oper Berlin, created in 1967