For the theatre designer Tom Piper, 2014 was a year like no other. Together with the artist Paul Cummins, he was co-creator of the commemorative the First World War installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red – the poppies at the Tower of London. The artistic phenomenon became a place of pilgrimage for millions this past summer.
Now Piper is back in the theatre, working with the director Michael Boyd, with whom he collaborated for many years at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They are the creative team behind a new production of Claudio Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece, L'Orfeo – the first great opera, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice – in the Royal Opera House's first collaboration with the Roundhouse.
Piper, who studied at Cambridge and the Slade School of Art, says that he aims generally to stimulate the audience's imagination and "give them a way in" to a work. Orfeo is no exception, though the Roundhouse, an unusual space for opera, requires the design to enhance its acoustics, as well as accommodating a sizeable company including teenage dancers.
"I think that for the right kind of opera and the right kind of project this is a great space," Piper says. "I think the fact that we've got a Renaissance scale of orchestra helps, as you're not relying on a conventional opera house with a pit. If you tried to do a 19th-century opera in there you'd be in real trouble: where do you put the orchestra? How do you balance the singers? But for this kind of piece it should work."
In pictures: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' poppy installation in London
In pictures: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' poppy installation in London
A photograph of Cpl Thomas William Belton of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry at the gates of the Tower of London poppy installation
Visitors view the "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" in the moat area of the Tower of London in central London
FP PHOTO / LEON NEAL
Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha each lay a poppy at an art installation, at the Tower of London
Tube closures and warnings of a crush of visitors couldn’t keep half-term crowds from Paul Cummins’ ceramic poppies
'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins, made up of 888,246 ceramic poppies fills the moat of the Tower of London, to commemorate the First World War in London
Volunteers continue to assemble an installation entitled 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins
'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins, made up of 888,246 ceramic poppies fills the moat of the Tower of London, to commemorate the First World War
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Red ceramic poppies that form part of the art installation "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" are seen at the Tower of London in London. The evolving art installation, which will be completed on 11 November, will create a commemoration for the centenary of World War One
Crowds gather to see the red ceramic poppies that form part of the art installation "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" at the Tower of London in London
An aerial view of the Tower of London, surrounded by ceramic poppies in a field of rememberance which started in July 2014 and will end with the last poppy being plave on Armistice day 11 November 2014
War Horse's Joey and Michael Morpurgo visit the Tower of London poppies
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh visit the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red evolving art installation at the Tower of London
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh visit the installation
Three generations on the military, Chelsea Pensioner Albert Willis, Yeoman Warder Paul Cunilffe and Captain of the Grenadier Guard Joe Robinson plant poppies at the 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' evolving art installation at the Tower of London. 888,246 poppies will be planted in the moat by volunteers with the last poppy being planted on the 11 November 2014. Each poppy represents a British or Colonial fatality in the First World War
A general view at the 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' evolving art installation at the Tower of London
Chelsea Pensioner Albert Willis plants a poppy at the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red evolving art installation at the Tower of London
Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry visit The Tower of London's 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' ceramic poppy installation by artist Paul Cummins, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of First World War in London
Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge adds a ceramic poppy watched by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge as she visits The Tower of London's 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' ceramic poppy installation
Catherine, Duchess Of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry join dignitaries as they visit the Tower of London's ceramic poppy field
He says that Boyd has found an inspired way to integrate the orchestra into the staging as a character in its own right, while the chorus and the figures of the gods – Proserpina, Pluto and Apollo – are present in a balcony, which he suggests is "rather like a courtroom", from which they observe the action.
"In general, I try to create spaces that can facilitate storytelling without imposing an interpretation," Piper says. "I once had a piece that a critic described as having 'no sense of place, time or atmosphere'. I've had that made into a T-shirt! Sometimes Michael teases me about that sense of abstraction, but to me it's like any good artist: you're trying to pare away, to reveal something."
Still, he is frustrated by a certain public perception that fails to recognise theatre design as an art. "With the poppies, both Paul and I suffered for not being seen as so-called conventional artists," he remarks. "Some people were saying: yes, it's popular and wonderful, but because it's made by a theatre designer we don't think it's a work of art. At which point you start to get a bit livid."
Rebutting a critic who declared that the Tower's moat would be better filled with bones and barbed wire, he says, "For me, it's a work about loss and commemoration, not about the horrors or war, because we can all imagine that. That's where the theatre element comes in – the idea of not hitting a metaphor over the head. The theatre designer in me would say: 'Just because a play is about World War I you don't fill the stage with bones – that would be such a crass, clichéd thing to do!' You find the metaphor and you allow people in."
Piper admits that he was slightly perturbed by the frenetic, obsessive surge of emotionalism that the installation inspired. "When it got to a point where it started to become a sort of pilgrimage, it felt familiar in a way that I was not totally comfortable with – there have been other moments when the British public has focused on something like that," he says. "And I didn't really like the fact that various politicians started trying to take ownership of it. But hopefully in the end they were all supportive."
Like Es Devlin's designs for the Olympics, though, Piper suggests that the poppies may ultimately raise the profile of his profession. "In this country we've got some of the best theatre designers in the world," he says, "but because we're working in a space that relatively few people can see, we're not well known. I'm never going to have five million people see what I do ever again, but perhaps more people might notice my designs. I might regret it, like an actor who's only known for the soap he was in. But I hope it will stimulate people to think in a broader way about theatre and design and to challenge those boundaries about what constitutes art."
'Orfeo', the Roundhouse, London NW1 (0300 6789 222) 13 to 24 JanuaryReuse content