In Opera, Clocks Take the Spotlight

“At times I get up in the middle of the night and stop all the clocks. All of them,” an aging princess sings in “Der Rosenkavalier,” Richard Strauss’s sprawling opera of love, devotion and loss. And time is fleeting, the character explains to her young lover: It “courses between you and me — silent, as in an hourglass.”

Time often plays a role in operatic plots, from the evil machinations in “Rigoletto” timed to the midnight toll of a village clock to the so-called “clock scene” in “Boris Godunov,” when the title character has visions of a young prince he may have murdered.

But this year several productions around the world have been using clocks in their set designs, either as a subtle background item or so central that the timepiece seems like a character itself.

Perhaps the opera most connected with clocks is “L’heure espagnole” (“Spanish Time”), Maurice Ravel’s one-act farce about a neurotic clockmaker and his unfaithful wife. It is being staged Aug. 22-26 at the Grimeborn Opera Festival in East London — with a twist.

“In this opera, two of the characters get hidden in grandfather clocks and are then taken upstairs, but we don’t have the budget to make two massive grandfather clocks,” said Christopher Killerby, the production’s set designer. “I wanted to make them more human, so the clocks are masks on the actors, with numbers circling around the face.”

Mr. Killerby said that he did create a clock shop — “I have a friend who is a horologist, so I’m using lots of his equipment, so it’s reminiscent of a real watchmaker’s shop” — but that he also wanted something atmospheric.

“We have several singers dressed as clocks who strike a chime as the show is about to begin,” he said. “They have on black overcoats with masks and white gloves. We have a sort of tick-tick-tick soundscape before any of the music starts.”

At the Glyndebourne summer opera festival in southern England, “L’heure espagnole” has been a favorite (a production shared with the Paris Opera, La Scala, the Rome Opera and the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival in Japan) and is available for livestreaming. Its designers, Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard, said that creating a set was always about enriching the story, but that it was particularly true in this case.

“On one hand, the set design is the accumulation of the clockmaker’s life, but on the other hand, the household items are an accumulation of their neurosis together,” Ms. Ginet said. “His wife, Concepción, is buried in household objects, and the two characters are very separated because of that. For her, the clock is truly ticking. It’s the middle of the day and the middle of her life.”

The designers said that finding clocks for the set was not difficult. “We found several old Brillié clocks in an old company in the south of Paris, and our director, Laurent Pelly, told us about a watchmaker’s shop not far from the workshop where we were working on the first sketches of the set,” Ms. Ginet said. “What he liked was the mess, the overflow of equipment and clocks of all kinds.”

Ms. Evrard added: “We wanted to have different styles, and a mix of old and new. It was a bit obsessive.”

Gathering props for the set, Ms. Ginet said, “the funny thing is that we found clocks everywhere, including in Matsumoto, Japan, which has a magnificent clock museum.”

“We even found a Hello Kitty clock,” she said.

The designers said the cluttered set reflected the theme of Ravel’s opera: Time cannot be controlled, no matter how many clocks you have.

“The opera is only one hour long, but the clocks are always running,” Ms. Evrard said. “It’s about death and taking the time to enjoy life. There is this tension between desire and death. Death is very present in this piece.”

And death looms large for one Italian set designer, who used clocks in three productions in the past year.

“Clocks speak about time, but they are also a reflection of life because time is something you can’t stop,” Paolo Fantin said in a video interview from Sydney, Australia, where Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” was staged in July (the production is scheduled at La Fenice, in Venice, in November). “We wanted to put this ‘Hoffmann’ in three stages” of the character’s life, Mr. Fantin said, “so we used clocks to chart his journey of self-discovery.”

In his design for Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” scheduled for Sept. 14 to Oct. 13 at the Paris Opera’s Palais Garnier (a production shared with the Royal Opera in London and the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily), a clock hovers in the background during the first act. But as the plot — and the title character — evolves, the timepiece changes.

“In this ‘Don Pasquale,’ there is a glass house where we can look inside, and in the first act there is a vintage grandfather clock,” Mr. Fantin said. “He lives in this house full of vintage furniture. He’s nostalgic. He doesn’t want to throw anything away. He never grows up.”

But then the young love interest, Norina, appears. “The home transforms into a modern one with designer clocks,” he said. “These two worlds are fighting with each other. Norina wants a completely new house, so he throws away the grandfather clock.”

Mr. Fantin also designed a production of “Der Rosenkavalier” last year for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera in Vilnius, where it is to play a second time, in May 2024.

The princess, whose title is Marschallin in the libretto, orders all the clocks in her home to be stopped. Mr. Fantin and the director decided that they could go further.

“Strauss really speaks about time in this opera, and the Marschallin is remembering the past all the time,” he said. “She tells the servants to bring her all of the clocks because she doesn’t want to see the passage of time. They bring her about 15 clocks, and she removes all of the hands. It’s a very powerful moment.”