The art of the illusionists

Bringing Verdi’s La traviata to life at Opera Delaware

3 minute read
Ridenour stands on a short ladder, propping up a set tree, with blue flowers in the photo's foreground
Scenic designer Jefferson Ridenour prepares the set for ‘La traviata.’ (Photo by Dara McBride.)

In an unassuming shopping plaza storefront in North Wilmington, the mundane is becoming extraordinary. That is, after all, what scenic artists and builders do. And here—tucked between a cafe and a vitamin shop, with a hardware store conveniently close by—a trio of creators is building the world of Verdi’s La traviata in shades of blue and violet.

“You've got to really trick the eye, and it's almost like you have to think of it as a living painting,” explained scenic designer Jefferson Ridenour, a New York-based artist. “The proscenium of the theater is the frame of our painting.”

Seasons and stars

Traviata tells the story of the courtesan Violetta, who falls in love with the romantic and affluent Alfredo. Naturally, social expectations threaten to tear the two apart.

In this La traviata, a co-production between Opera Delaware and Opera Baltimore directed by Kaley Karis Smith, the set reflects developments onstage as well as the seasons. Act I opens in an outdoor garden party appropriate for the blossoming of a new relationship. By Act III, the set has adopted a wintery tone, with Violetta unwell and alone.

Ridenour, a New York-based scenic designer and artist, conceived the design. Conversations with Smith led Ridenour to find inspiration in astrology for the tragic drama, resulting in a design that plays with warm and cool blues as well as golden stars.

The main set is a unit; three static walls feature hidden hinges or open spaces for dynamic elements. Lighting design, costumes, and props work in conversation with it. In one scene, open windows suggest a provincial summer. In another, golden mirrors fill the frames and chandeliers fly in from above.

Being an illusionist

While the production will appear at Delaware’s historic Grand Opera House, the theater is without a dedicated scenic shop downtown. That’s how Ridenour, scenic painter Erica Harney, and carpenter Bob Parker found themselves creating 1880s Paris in suburban North Wilmington.

“It's about craftiness, skill, innovation, and problem-solving,” Ridenour said. “And being an illusionist.”

The three creators have worked together for several years and have a comfortable camaraderie. Parker is the veteran of the group; he started working with Opera Delaware in 1989 as a set builder. When a lumber shortage slowed Parker’s progress on the La traviata build, his thoughts went to Harney, who needed something to paint.

“I view myself as the funnel, all of the scenery has to come through me,” said Harney, who will also make final touch-ups to the set once onstage.

Built for a moment

The three experimented with materials to complete the vision for La traviata. Plaster ornamentation is made of silk flowers dipped in glue, primer, and paint. Plastic sheeting set in a wood frame becomes a magnificent mirror. A decorative wall molding is a flexible plastic resin.

“From a distance and under stage lights, nothing looks like it actually is,” Parker said.

When the job is done, the set is loaded for two performances in Baltimore, before returning to Wilmington. Later, it will travel to North Carolina as a rental for another production. Then, to storage until it can be used or rented again.

Meanwhile, the scenic creators look ahead to the next job or art project—or the next project at home.

“It's the busman's holiday type thing,” said Parker. “When the guy who drives the bus goes on vacation, he takes a bus tour. I'm supposed to go home and do repairs.”

What, When, Where

La Traviata. By Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Kaley Karis Smith. $29-$99. March 31, 2023, at 7:30pm, and April 2, 2023, at 2pm. Copeland Hall at the Grand, 818 N. Market Street, Wilmington. (302) 442-7807 or


The Grand is equipped with elevators and is wheelchair accessible. If you or someone in your party requires wheelchair seating or has mobility issues, please notify the box office at the time of your order.

Masks are optional.

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