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Captured in Time

The Historic Charleston Foundation’s Aiken-Rhett House inspired the set of the upcoming Spoleto opera Proserpina.

may 26, 2010

Captured in Time
Proserpina set designer Martha Ginsberg’s historic downtown muse

WRITTEN BY Harriet McLeod
Photographs by Rick McKee, courtesy of the Historic Charleston Foundation


1844 bust of Proserpina by Hiram Powers

On a sultry evening last week, about 30 people gathered in the dark, double parlor of the Historic Charleston Foundation’s Aiken-Rhett House to hear set and costume designer Martha Ginsberg discuss how the home’s interiors, in their frozen and magnificent decay, inspired her set for Proserpina. The much-anticipated opera by German composer Wolfgang Rihm makes its American premiere this Sunday night at Spoleto Festival USA.

Proserpina, or Persephone in Greek, was abducted by Pluto, god of the Underworld, and forced to live with him there. He granted her a six-month reprieve every year to visit her mother on Earth, which became the mythical origin of spring. Based on Goethe’s dramatic poem, the monodrama is set at the moment when Proserpina has no hope of escaping her horrible circumstances, Ginsberg explained.

Her talk was followed by a group tour of the 12-room townhouse, which was built in 1818 and expanded in the 1830s and 1850s by Governor and Mrs. William Aiken Jr. “Thank you on behalf of Mrs. Aiken,” said HCF curator Brandy Culp, pointing toward her large portrait, “and Governor Aiken, whom you will find above the sideboard in the dining room.”

When asked about the house as a muse, Ginsberg, a New Yorker, said she had seen photos of the Aiken-Rhett House in World of Interiors years ago. “I swore that if I ever went to Charleston, I would visit this house.” So when she and director Ken Rus Schmoll came to see Memminger Auditorium, she arranged a tour of the house with Valerie Perry of HCF. “The first room we walked into had this statue of Proserpina,” she said. The designer was struck by the fact that the house has been preserved, not restored. According to HCF, the structure and its interiors have stood virtually unchanged since 1858. “It has this aura to it—a ghostliness, where you feel the presence of the people who have lived here before,” said Ginsberg. “Time has happened in this house, and we’re trying to replicate that time in the stage set.”

Ginsberg based the set’s ceiling on the exposed lath of an upstairs bathroom ceiling where keys of old plaster still protrude; the skylight was inspired by the house’s art gallery. “Then there’s this beautiful bedroom where there’s peeling wallpaper with plaster,” Ginsberg said. “We discovered that the wallpaper had a pattern that was painted over, so you see the ghost of what the fabric was before.

“It’s really hard to do this gravity thing with wallpaper,” she added, to laughter. “It’s the wallpaper falling off the wall and gravity making it hover, and it’s hard to achieve.”

Old house meets parking lot in the floor of the Memminger set, which is made to look like concrete with weeds springing up through cracks, Ginsberg noted. Given that Proserpina is married to Pluto and living in his world, is this Hell? “We never really said this is Hell,” she explained. “With some directors, you can be like, ‘Okay, this is Hell, what does it mean?’ We haven’t done that. We’re just creating this dreamy world. Hell has this negative connotation. We wanted to investigate what it means to have a relationship with Pluto and to be in love with him. It’s not a totally pleasant place, but it’s more intuitive.”

For more information on Spoleto Festival USA’s Proserpina, click here.

For more information on the Aiken-Rhett House at 48 Elizabeth Street, click here.

For our selective guide to the Best of the Spoleto & Piccolo Spoleto festivals, click here.


Wed, 05/26/2010