Drew Farley, Assistant Technical Director for the SF Opera Production Department, had not seen The Tales of Hoffmann before he started to work on drawings and planning for the production, but after he researched the themes and the story, he understood and appreciated the inspiration for the production’s design coming from Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert.
The story has a significant amount of symbolism, all the different women that Hoffmann falls in love with are not real in and of themselves—they are symbolic parts of the same woman: Stella. Spilliaert's art style is Symbolist, which has an association with the darker aspects of the Romantic style in literature. This ties back to the production design because the original stories were written by a man named Hoffmann; a German Romantic author and the namesake of the opera’s main character.
The entire set is fascinating: walls with double hinges that make them reversible, mirrors that steal reflections, moveable staircases and balconies, and a Frankenstein-like laboratory. Overall the set is based in the soft, dreamy tones of Spilliaert's watercolor, gouache, and pastels. It does not have a great deal of decoration, which is not to say it isn’t detailed; it is meticulous and clean.
My favorite part of the production is Olympia—one of the women Hoffmann falls for, who turns out to be an automaton and a clockwork doll. She looks real to Hoffmann because of the events in the story and the tricks played on him, but we in the audience will see her mechanical nature in the blocking and in the aria she sings. She will be on a counterweighted boom and will appear to fly into the air at one point, and she runs down during her aria and has to be wound back up to finish.
The emptiness, sadness, and melancholy of Spilliaert's artwork reflect the anguish and pining that the character Hoffmann endures. You can see why the designer chose Spilliaert as the inspiration for the sets—it just fits with the story. No doubt, the production will move and inspire.