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Prop music: making harpsichords for Il barbiere di Siviglia

Not one but seven harpsichords

Head of Props, Paul Brown, talks to Karen Anderson about the wonderful harpsichords that appear in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

For Glyndebourne’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia our props department fulfilled an unusual brief from the designer Joanna Parker – to make not one but seven harpsichords. If you have seen the production you may recall that three are suspended over the stage or ‘flown’ from the fly-tower above at the end of Act 1, but there are others on stage for a lot of the action and these are climbed on, laid upon, moved around, sat on, wrapped and unwrapped- so sturdy and light replicas were created by the Glyndebourne props department.

Photo: Sam Stephenson

Taking images of original 17th and 18th century harpsichords as their inspiration, they set out making seven instruments that were identical in shape, but completely different in appearance, as Head of Props, Paul Brown, explains: ‘Originally we talked about having a harpsichord that one of the actors could wear in the same way you’d wear a prop as a costume in a street pageant, but this was inelegant and a bit farcical, so we moved away from this but kept the idea of a lightweight harpsichord that could be moved around easily. So one of the harpsichords, the ‘wrapped’ one that is moved around, is made of polystyrene, clad in 1.5mm kin plywood and is the lightest of all. It is not wrapped in paper but silk (made to look like paper, think Christo & Jean-Claude’s wrapped Reichstag in Berlin to get the idea) with sewn-in pleats that look like paper folds; but as it is a big job to unwrap a harpsichord on stage, we then have a semi-wrapped version – harpsichord 1B.’

Photo: Sam Stephenson

The remaining five ‘are built in a more traditional way. We used the Harpsichord User’s Guide as a reference for this, so all are made of wood to the exact specification of a genuine harpsichord – beech ply with hardwood detail on top. The legs, however, could not be made here as our lathe could not accurately duplicate the turned wood legs we needed, so we asked a local woodturner to make there for us, and they are made of solid wood.’

Over a four month period ‘on and off’, Paul made harpsichords with Natalie Ryan, and the whole props team were involved in the finishing- and as each one looks completely different from the other, this was no mean feat.

Photo: Sam Stephenson

‘The outside detail on the harpsichord is hand-painted, based on original ornamentation- so for example the “cream” harpsichord is hand-painted with mythical creatures, based on an actual harpsichord from the 18th century; the green harpsichord has a printed lid and strings on the soundboard. There are two blue harpsichords, one on stage and one “flown”, both with gold detail, and the red “flown” instrument you see upside down has ornate plastic molding finished in gold leaf to add extra opulence and texture.

Photo: Bill Cooper

You can see two of the prop harpsichords in action in this extract from the opera:

This production of Il barbiere di Siviglia will be at Festival 2019 from 19 May–14 July

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