THE tattoos? «My husband drew them all for me (the architect Italo Rota, ed). Here on the forearm I have the classic of sailors: the anchor, the cross and the writing “Amor”. This is the Bauhaus symbol with our initials, a reminder of an anniversary. Here Tatlin’s Tower; Ugo, my favorite dog, who died years ago, and the cat that Luca Ronconi had given me: he had a super pedigree but it was “crooked”, we called him Gehry. Finally, the “little mermaid”, Italo’s self-portrait with his cat: the doctor who vaccinated me looked at me like crazy» she laughs, Margaret Pallireturning from the satisfactions of Romeo and Juliet by Mario Martone at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan and waiting for the recovery – from 3 May – ofAndrea Chenier at La Scala.
In 2023 she celebrates her 40-year career, but she is reluctant to celebrate. «It was very quick – and with no in-between phase – the transition from emerging young man to old lady of set design» she jokes, always ready to play down her. Never discounted.
Paris? “A detestable city, fake like Disneyland.” A true masterpiece? «The Pope crossing empty St. Peter’s Square during the pandemic: what a setting, what costumes, what light! No one has been able to create something like this.” The project that “amused you to death”, among the many masterpieces of opera and prose staged? «The exhibition at the Milan Triennale, in 2007, for the 20th anniversary of Strip the news. At the first meeting I was more than prejudiced. And Antonio Ricci wasn’t enthusiastic either: he expected a pain in the ass Ronconian. It ended up that he found himself in front of one of hers with red hair (the cut is inspired by the little boy in a painting by Ferdinand Hodler, ed) dressed like a madman, and I’m a sort of super-cultured university professor (laughs)».
“The computer is democratic”
What has changed in the scenography compared to your debut?
At the time, either you drew well by hand or they didn’t take you, and it was a pity, maybe you had excellent intuitions; today, with the help of computers, access is more “democratic”. And, what’s more, there are several uses in addition to the theatre: fashion shows, conventions, shop windows, events, concerts… For students (she is director of the three-year Scenography course at Naba, the New Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, ed) I explain that, whatever the destination, our task is the same: to transform the client’s input into an aesthetic idea.
Client, client: ours is a profession. The client was the one who entrusted the Sistine Chapel to Michelangelo! They ask us for a product that respects budgets, time limits, safety standards… We are counterfeiters of spaces, but we have to counterfeit them well: even the less artistically cultured eye distinguishes authentic marble from fake. TV has contributed a great deal to the development of taste, like Ikea.
Dante Ferretti founded a scenography festival to claim its non-ancillary role to directing.
Premise: directing is not such an ancient profession, it begins in the 1900s when the lights go out and the public concentrates (in the past they did everything in the hall, including gambling). I would not speak of subjection, but of sharing: with the director there must be a relationship of trust and quick understanding. Ronconi started from the plan (he imagined the shows as if it were a bird that flies over the stage and sees the movement of the actors) and gave me suggestions with a single word, with his scribble to interpret.
“Like on the Titanic”
Mario, who has a lot of cinema behind him, suggests film images for me: for the Rigoletto della Scala, in 2022, he quoted Parasites. For Andrea Chenier, set during the French Revolution, struck me by saying: “It’s a bit like on the Titanic, with the poor class seeing the first class jumping. The people watch the old world sink.” But the bulk of the work begins once the aesthetic key has been identified: there is the technical part, one must bear in mind that the interpreters move on the structures, as in the case of the Romeo and Juliet… There was a tenor who had a foot size of 47 and couldn’t run on normal scales, we changed them last minute.
Did you already imagine yourself as a set designer as a child?
Nooo: I wanted to become a vet! This is why I had chosen the scientific gymnasium (she was born and attended school in Switzerland, ed). Having – alas – terror of blood, my father (architect specialized in buildings linked to water, ed) dissuaded me, advising me to focus on drawing. I decided to come to Milan and enroll at the Brera Academy: scenography seemed to me the section with the most practical approach to securing work. I would have preferred sculpture, my teacher, Alik Cavaliere, stopped me: “You’re a girl, sculpture is already difficult for a man”.
And the scenography right? Women were very few.
Now I have more female students than male students, the conditions have changed: you organize meetings via Zoom, there are rapid trains, the cost of flights are sustainable… It’s a profession that reconciles better with the private sector. Me in 1986 – for Ignorabimus of Ronconi in Prato – I left on January 8th and returned on May 24th!
“Debut with Ronconi”
Out of the Academy?
When they reopened the Milan Triennale in 1979, I went there on a scholarship. In 1980 my husband moved to Paris to collaborate with Gae Aulenti, and after a couple of years she asked me to assist her in the theatre. First engagement, in the 1983/1984 season at La Scala: Samstag aus Licht by Stockhausen, directed by Ronconi. And immediately – many accuse me of having made little apprenticeship, and in a certain sense they are right – Luca proposed me Phaedra of Racine at Mestastasio in Prato, followed by The two plays in comedy And The comedy of seduction: “But it’s a full-time commitment” he warned me. I resigned from Aulenti and left Italo (but we reconciled).
Two creatives under one roof… It won’t be easy.
We’ve been married since ’76, with ups and downs, but it still works. We have mutual respect: at work we don’t advise each other, although a glance is enough for us to understand if we don’t share something… In daily life we compensate: he is messy, I am tidy; he improviser, I methodical; he loves pasta, I don’t; he likes to cook, I don’t (go ahead!). His most precious gift is the house-studio where we live: knowing me well, he designed it right on me.
You recently collaborated on a Theater Dictionarypublished by Quodlibet.
The inspiration came to me by discovering among the things of my grandfather (a teacher who founded the Centro Operaio Educativo with others to help Italian immigrants in Switzerland who could neither read nor write and had to get by in a country where four languages are spoken) , a “nomenclator”, a booklet illustrated with the words of the blacksmith’s trade, declined in Italian, French, German and Romansh. Italo edited the preface, I edited the list of words and the appendix on rituals and superstitions in theaters around the world.
“Toi, toi, toi”
In Italy, we know, we demonize violet because it is used during Lent, a period in which actors – in the Middle Ages – did not work and, therefore, did not eat. But why is yellow bad luck in Spain? The bullfighter’s muleta is yellow inside, and it will be the last color he will see in case the bull gets the better of it… I also compared what one hopes before facing the scene. In Italy and France they use “merda, merda, merda!”: in the past centuries the more horse droppings there were in front of the theatres, the more carriages and more spectators had arrived… In Germany “toi, toi, toi”, the pronunciation of the first syllable of teufel, the devil: an apotropaic little devil is always placed on German (and Swiss) Christmas trees. The “Break a leg”“Break a leg” of the English is related to the amount of final bows…
Would a little book like this have been useful to you in any case?
In one at least, for sure. They had called me for one Nutcracker, sets and costumes, and in the tailor’s shop the head seamstress warns: “We have three tutu degà”. “Yes yes!”, I say without understanding. I go home and phone an expert friend: “Marghe! Degas, the painter…».
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