#Nolan 100

No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky


No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky

Working with Sidney Nolan on the design of Samson et Dalila at Covent Garden, 1981

"I was invited by Sir John Tooley to direct a new production of Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saens to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett. Who did I think would be the appropriate designer for this project?  

The opera was not highly regarded at the time and considered to be a sort of French orientalist perfumed affair and a piece of kitsch.  I rather admired the opera and thought that it needed a visual presentation which took it out of ordinary stage design and into a realm of biblical symbolism. I immediately thought of Sidney Nolan whose paintings were inscribed into my Australian unconscious. John Tooley seemed excited by the idea and the next day I was told that he had spoken to Nolan who was fascinated by the prospect of designing an opera, and could I meet him at his apartment in Whitehall Court.  

We met and it was an instant rapport. He did know the opera, he did not know the procedure to design a huge piece like this – I was to organise all that. But we talked about music. Music was of great importance to him. He was a connoisseur of nuance in performance. He told me that he chose to live in Whitehall Court because he said he could just walk across the bridge to the Festival Hall for concerts. Was Solti’s Beethoven better than Tennstedt’s? Did I not prefer Ashkenazy’s playing to Brendel’s? What about literature – Patrick White? Robert Frost or Auden? 

This exciting talker, this man of enormous cultural sensibility who adored music, poetry and literature, totally enchanted me and a firm commitment was made to enter the project which would be performed about 7 months later.  

At this point he then disappeared on a long journey to travel the silk route to Mongolia. Several months passed and Covent Garden began pressing me for designs to start work. There seemed no way to reach him but by some means John Tooley was able to get a message through to him and indeed received a phone call from Sidney which he imagined to be from a phone booth in the Gobi desert. Yes, Sidney was still on board with the venture and keen. He was about to return and had discovered exotic silk fabrics in China which he wanted to incorporate into the costumes.  

A week later he was back. Covent Garden was about to go into its summer recess and we had to come up with a functioning design almost immediately.  

We had decided that we wanted to create layers of imagery on gauze cloths, sometimes four deep, to provide a complete but shifting environment of colour and design for the stage action. A model of the Royal Opera House stage was built to a large scale into which he could experimentally hang his paintings. This was delivered to his studio and we began intensive work. We had to work intensely and quickly. I was to guide him step by step through the demands of the opera and build up the whole scheme of the production. This could only be done if we met every day and worked together as the model developed. He painted quickly and we would test the scale and value of each cloth in the model.  

We would have lunch and discuss the plan for that day. I would read him the libretto, sometimes passages from the Bible, sometimes parts of Jung’s essays and sometimes Freud on Monotheism. We began by tackling the scene with the Hebrews at the beginning – how did this relate to the later scenes, moving to the world of Dalila? And he began to consider the scenes in terms of colour and texture. But we did not want scenery as conventionally understood. We did not want the kitsch of Hollywood Biblical epics. I wanted a stage in which the performers could populate the Nolan world.  

‘What is that first scene about?’ Sidney kept enquiring. Not the action of the scene but its nub, its inner core. Eventually he forced me to find it. It was about God. The Israelites feeling lost and abandoned by Jehovah.  

This idea absolutely hit him with force. He said ‘What if we do it from God’s point of view?’ He then painted, very quickly using vivid dyes a blue background and on it he put the imprint of his own hand painted black. The effect in performance would be that we saw the Israelites obscurely in white and blue sections of the stage picture, and the imprint of the black hand would act as a void through which we could see the disposed Hebrews clearly. This symbol, he explained to me, came to him from aboriginal rock paintings. It was, he said, the first expression of Man’s self awareness. For Nolan, it was a symbol of creativity in man, The Hand of God. 

Standing next to him every day as we probed and invented the world of the opera, I was aware of a man who had a visionary grasp on his art, who could somehow actualise the mythic, the essential though behind ordinary reality. There was no stagey banality or indeed practicality in his work. It was there, to mine the inner core of some essential sense of man’s relationship to landscape, light, sexuality and tragedy.  

When it came to devising the key image for the production, something that defined the core of the myth of Samson, Sidney came up with an enormously powerful image of the blind Samson, eyes streaming blood. It was about the tragedy of man himself. Samson / Oedipus, overwhelming in the theatre, red raw background surrounded the ghost shape of a face in agony with its eyes put out. Like the helmet of Ned Kelly, this Samson was an essential image of human suffering."

Elijah Moshinsky is a world renowned director of theatre and opera with a career spanning over thirty years. He has worked with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, New York and the Royal National Theatre amongst numerous other venues. 

Sidney Nolan, Study for Samson et Dalila, 1981, Ink on card, 30.5 x 24cm, © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust


No.1 - Four Abstracts - Alexander Downer

No.2 - Self Portrait - Angus Trumble

No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan

No.4 Riverbend I - Francine Stock

No.5 - Desert - Andrew Logan

No.6 Dog and Duck - Jane Clark

No.7 Vivisector - Tim Abdallah

No.8 In the Cave - Rebecca Daniels

No.9 Young Soldier - Clare Woods

No.10 Ned Kelly - Shaun Gladwell

No.11 Bird - Deborah Ely

No. 12 Hare in Trap - Nicholas Usherwood

No.13 Untitled (Catani Arch, St Kilda) - David Rainey

No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky

No.16 Rimbaud at Harar - Edmund Capon AM OBE

No.17 Quilting the Armour - Jackie Haliday

No.18 Snake - David Walsh

No.19 Angel and the Tree - Dr Nicky McWilliam

No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith

No.21 Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl -Jennifer Higgie

No.22 Women and Billabong - Anthony Plant

No.23 Agricultural Hotel - Philip Mead

No.24 Policeman in a Wombat Hole - Kay Whitney

No.25 Peter Grimes - David Lipsey

No.26 Self Portrait in Youth - Barry Pearce & Duncan Fallowell

No.27 Riverbend I - Ian Dungavell

No.28 Drowned Soldier at Anzac as Icarus - Paul Gough

No.29 Thames - John Tooley

No.30 Girl - Amelda Langslow

No.31 Ned Kelly and Policeman - Daniel Crawshaw

No.32 Tarred and Feathered - Nick Cave

No.33 Self Portrait - Denise Mimmocchi

No.34 Peter Grimes's Apprentice - George Vass

No.35 The Emu Hunt - Roger Law

No.36 Luna Park - Paula Dredge

No.37 Rose in Coffee Pot - Anthony Collier

No.38 The Cardplayers - Nevin Jayawardena

No.39 Bathers - Lesley Harding

No.40 Aboriginal Girl - Jennie Milne

No.41 Pretty Polly Mine - Michael Brand

No 42. Roses in a Merric Boyd Vase - Jack Galloway

No 43. Brett Whiteley - Jonathan Watkins

No 44. Island - Nick Yelverton

No 45. Luna Park - Bill Granger

No 46. Face of the Damned - Kate McMillan

No 47. Central Australia - Leanne Santoro

No 48. Crane - Brian Adams

No 49. Myself - Simon Mundy

No 50. Going to Work, Rising Sun Hotel, 1948 - David Ferry

No 51. Figure at Harar - Andrew Turley

No 52, Greek Figures - Simon Pierse

No 53. Randolph Stow - Suzanne Falkiner

No 54. Landscape No.27 (Convalescence) - Suzanne Falkiner

No 55. Self portrait - Oliver McCall

No 56. McMurdo Sound - Mike Clements

No 57. Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse - Mark Fraser

No 58. Season in Hell (Benjamin Britten) - Anne Bean

No 59. The Slip - Humphrey Ocean

No 60. Central Australia - Chris Drury

No 61. Riverbend - Christina Slade

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

No 63. Myth Rider - Desmond Browne

No 64. Stockman - Bridget McDonnell

No 65. Untitled (flower) - Roma Piotrowska

No 66. Chinese Landscape - Celia Perceval

No 67. Untitled - Des Hughes

No 68. Crucifixion - Rod Bugg

No 69. Icebergs - Laurence Hall

No 70. Bather in a Lily Pool - Amanda Fitzwilliams

No 71. Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head - Michael Berkeley

No 72. Carcase in Swamp - Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

No 73. Ern Malley - Isabella Boorman

No 74. Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan - Adrian Kelly

No 75. Landscape Carnarvon Range, Queensland - Catherine Noske

No 76. Abraham and Isaac - Sarah Bardwell

No 77. Rosa Mutabilis - Catherine Hunter

No 78. Artist drawing nude - Victoria Lynn

No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

No 81. All Tastes Like Dust in the Mouth... - Carolyn Leder

No 82. Young Boy Who Was Good at Latin - Roxy Shaw

No 83. Mrs Fraser - Anne Carter

No 84. Paradise Garden - David Oliver

No 85. Leda and the Swan - Marilyn Sweet

No 86. Burke and Wills at the Gulf - Jenny Watson

No 87. Dream of the latrine sitter - Ryan Johnston

No 88. Footballer - Gerard Vaughan

NO 89. Sketch for Ned Kelly - Amanda Fuller

NO 90. Woman in Lagoon - Jinx Nolan

No 91. Cherries in a bowl - Peter Blake

No 92. Fountain - Heywood Hill

No 93. Artist and painting - Charles Nodrum

No 94. Death of Constable Scanlon - Anita Taylor

No 95. Untitled (abstract) - David Jaffe

No 96. Digital image - Joe Studholme

No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken

No 98. Burke and Wills expedition 'Gray sick' - Gary Sangster

No 99. Kangaroo at Ayers Rock - Pru and Anthony Napolitano

No 100. The Galaxy - Elizabeth Langslow