Isabella Bywater: From creating miniature worlds to designing opera sets

22 April 2022

Following a hugely successful run during Welsh National Opera’s Autumn 2021 Season, Puccini’s heart-wrenching Madam Butterflyreturns for a limited number of performances this Spring. We caught up with designer Isabella Bywater to find out where her passion for design came from and how she approached Puccini’s classic.

‘The invention of an environment, the practical questions and solutions, the collaborations, the model making. I enjoy it all. 

As a child I was constantly inventing miniature worlds. I thought architecture would be an exciting career, creating practical spaces for people to live or work in. However, when I was 17 and at college in Cambridge I became very engaged in theatre and for the first time saw that theatre design existed. I changed direction and started looking into artist's work and researching historical theatre design. I was particularly interested in avant-garde work. After leaving college at 18 I got myself a job as a cleaner at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End and proceeded on a route of apprenticeships from there, including prop making, dressing, scene painting and finally assisting designers.

I approach every show in the same way – discussing ideas with the director, free association thinking and visual and literary research. My creative process always involves listening to the music, reading the libretto and thinking about the story and about solutions or ideas while doing other things. Sometimes even waking in the middle of the night. 

Cio Cio San dressed in bridal dress and dancers stood in line behind her

For Madam Butterfly, I read Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, a memoire on which the original Butterfly play was based on. I found it very interesting and helpful.  I also looked at a lot of images of girls looking doll-like or exotic, virginal, high fashion and of course, wedding dresses. I looked at images of rain and condensation, and people in glass enclosures. I had the idea of Butterfly trapped in a glass box 'cage' like an animal in a zoo or a model in a window display very early on. I don't use technology when designing. I do simple sketches and gather broad references.

With this production of Madam Butterfly both Lindy Hume and I developed the concept together and we wanted to create something contemporary, unsentimental, and politically aware. We wanted to make paramount the 'deal' of wedding and marriage sold as a commodity. The woman/child is the commodity. Because of the pandemic, we predominantly worked on the phone and on zoom, coming together as restrictions changed.

I believe that everything should come together and work as one whole, each element a fundamental ingredient in a recipe.

For any budding designers, my advice would be, theatre design is not for everyone. It is hard work, vocational. You must be passionate about it. For those of us who love it, it is a way of life.