Sustainable Set Design With AutoCAD Takes Center Stage for Opera North and OC Theatrical

Customer Spotlight
Stage with large ensemble and throne made of deer antlers.

Opera North’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Photo credit Richard H. Smith.

Opera North’s recent season hit all the high notes of thrilling drama, powerful arias, and the moving moments expected during an opera performance. But they also made a new impact beyond the stage.

Opera North, a national opera company based in Leeds, United Kingdom, performed its first fully sustainable season in an ambitious undertaking guided by the Theatre Green Book. With a collaboration between Buro Happold and a wide swath of the UK theatre community, the Theatre Green Book’s three volumes provide new goals, guidance, and sustainability standards for theatre productions, buildings, and operations.  

For Opera North’s “Green Season,” all three operas—Falstaff, La Rondine, and Masque of Might—shared scenic elements with a focus on reducing material use and creating new designs that were both distinctive and a similar aesthetic for continuity. All sets, props, and costumes were sourced from previous productions to adapt for reuse or purchased second-hand. Everything was brought to life in a reimagined and sustainable way.

Opera singers on a stage with large white panels
Opera North’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine. Photo credit Tristram Kenton.

“We wanted to take this ambitious next step for sustainability by creating our first fully Green Season of three operas,” says Richard Ashton, Operations Director, Opera North. “The result was an incredible season of productions for our audiences with a reduced impact on the planet and many learnings for our continued journey to a more sustainable future for the industry.”

Discovering Past Sets to Inspire New Designs

OC Theatrical is a consultancy based in the UK specializing in theatre and events. Owner and founder Oli Cooper has worked on a vast array of drafting and engineering projects over his long career, ranging from the National Theatre in London to touring productions of Hamilton, Six: The Musical, and many more. But helping to create a completely “green” set design was a first.

“Since everything was a recovery from another show or a secondhand purchase, it was particularly challenging on the drafting side,” Cooper says. “Normally I would be given a project, pick materials suitable to the construction of the object, and work out how and where to cut or weld.”

Large ensemble of opera singers on stage
Opera North’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine. Photo credit Tristram Kenton.

It was understood that there wouldn’t be massive, unique set structures. A core goal of the three-show season was to use the same set pieces but reimagine them with different configurations for each show. By reusing existing sets from their warehouse and sourcing existing materials, a new level of sustainability was reached.

The process itself started like any other typical show where Cooper received a 1:25 scale model from the designer. The designer went around Opera North’s storage to see what pieces were existing, and he provided recommendations to be sure and include. “It was up to us to come up with solutions to create that vision,” Cooper says.

Two level set design with man walking down stairs
Opera North’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine. Photo credit Tristram Kenton.

Drafting Scenic Elements With AutoCAD for Sustainable Set Design

Cooper visited Leeds and did several visits of Opera North’s warehouse space and storage to see what scenic pieces had been put aside and saved.

“For the beams of the structure, we found material going to scrap and were able to purchase it,” Cooper says. “The rest of the structure was used from materials in storage. I measured and surveyed pieces that would potentially work and then generated a 3D model in AutoCAD. From that, we could piece together the structure like LEGO and add in the components that were already existing and on hand.”

Screenshot of AutoCAD
Opera North set design in AutoCAD. Courtesy of OC Theatrical.

For other set pieces, some reference drawings were on hand and could be easily reimagined in AutoCAD. One of these set pieces included 20-foot high, period window frames that were originally static, but then transformed with a different truck base to wheel it on and off the stage. “We were able to take the original drawings in AutoCAD and modify the bases and braces by simply adding them on,” Cooper says. “It was a far more efficient process.”

One of the show-stopping scenes in Falstaff featured an enormous throne covered with deer antlers. The chair was modified from a previous show and the antlers were obtained from recovery in local parks. After the season ended, they were put in storage for reuse in future productions.

Man sitting on large throne of deer antlers with two people singing in front
Antler throne in Opera North’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Photo credit Richard H. Smith.
Screenshot of throne frame in AutoCAD
Design for antler throne in AutoCAD. Courtesy OC Theatrical.
PDF of assembly for throne
PDF of assembly for antler throne. Courtesy of OC Theatrical.

“Working on the ‘Green Season’ for Opera North brought an entirely new way of thinking about fabrication, appreciating reuse, and approaching the drafting process,” Cooper says. “In the end, I delivered 110 drawings for 14 different elements, and it only would have been possible with AutoCAD.”

“One of the most important parts of AutoCAD is its flexibility. You don’t always need to necessarily know what you’re drawing before you draw it. You can add, remove, and carve away. It’s far more organic and dynamic than other software and gives you more flexibility.”

Oli Cooper, Owner and Founder, OC Theatrical

Communicating and Collaborating With AutoCAD

The documentation for the design and fabrication of Opera North’s season was both in DWG and PDF formats. Everyone was encouraged to view PDFs on tablets to save paper and keep in the green theme. These drawings were crucial for coordination, but the collaboration and communication extended far beyond a final set of drawings.

Shared Views in AutoCAD is important in all the work with my clients,” Cooper says. “It allows me to put things in 3D and anyone can go through the design. It’s so simple.”

“One of the biggest parts of my job is communication,” he continues. “I’m there to communicate ideas and many of my stakeholders are very creative, visual people. Having that ability to do it in 3D with AutoCAD with different levels of details is important.”

Courtesy of OC Theatrical.

Cooper also often uses AutoCAD on the web and on mobile for markups, quick sketches on site, or to review designs with a stakeholder. “If I’m just doing a survey of an area or need to draw something simple, I have my MacBook with me and I can just quickly knock it out then and there with AutoCAD on the web,” Cooper says. “It’s a powerful tool.”

For Cooper, AutoCAD is a critical component to his success.

“When you’re in a specialized field, it’s really hard to find a program that does everything,” he says. “I love how much you can customize with AutoCAD. I have many plugins that enable me to do what I do because it’s a base that you can add to. It’s like a pizza with anything you want to add and make it your own.”

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