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Back in 2005, virtually no one beyond the rarefied confines of opera and London’s West End was familiar with the dazzling, psychedelic vision of set designer Esmeralda “Es” Devlin. But that year, undeterred by Devlin’s lack of experience staging pop music shows, Kanye West brought her in for his Touch the Sky Tour, and in the decade since, the 43-year-old London-based Devlin has become perhaps the world’s most in-demand performance designer, fearlessly zig-zagging genres at the speed of a floodlight.
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In addition to creating sets for five of West’s tours, she conceptualized a nightmarish vision of New York to contain the manic energy of Lady Gaga during the artist’s Monster Ball trek in 2009 and 2010, engineered a massive exploding Union Jack for the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, dreamed up a two-story-high, pink fiberglass tongue for Miley Cyrus to slide down for the 2014 Bangerz Tour and concocted a spectacularly dilapidated Danish castle for Benedict Cumberbatch’s current turn in Hamlet.
MILEY (LEFT): In addition to the fiberglass tongue Cryus slid down, Devlin brought the provocateur’s dreams to life for the 2014 Bangerz arena world tour with set elements like a giant hot dog and a massive model of Cyrus’ beloved Alaskan Klee Kai, Floyd. KANYE (RIGHT): Of her work with West, on the 2013 Yeezus U.S. arena tour (left), Devlin says, “If you point a light at the audience, like they do in most concerts, it’s like hitting the energy button — it’s easy. Kanye decided to rely on reflected light alone, like in an opera.”
Earlier this month, U2 kicked off the European leg of its Devlin-designed Innocence & Experience Tour just in time for her to turn attention to her long-awaited Sept. 21 debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with season-opener Otello. Her “fiercely intellectual” creations, notes Barlett Sher, the production’s Tony Award-winning director, “somehow sparkle and flicker brightly into life.”
U2 ON STAGE: “There is always a theme of lost mothers,” says Devlin of U2, for whom she worked on the Innocence + Experience Tour. “It connects them with Kanye in a deep way. Both Larry Mullen Jr. and Bono have lost their mothers. It is a part of them on a basic psychological level and echoes when you are creating things for them.”
Born in Kingston Upon Thames, Devlin didn’t discover stage design until age 23, when a lecturer at London’s Central St. Martins urged her to enroll in the intensive, one-year Motley Theatre Design Course.
A dervish by nature, she is one with a purpose: “I’m evangelical in wanting to erase the difference in people’s minds between the experience of popular and high culture,” she says, on a brief break from 12-hour days at Lincoln Center. Watching West’s fluidity in incorporating classical references has been a model: “When we first met 10 years ago, he didn’t care that I’d never done a pop show. He came with me to see Salome in London, and he was really taken with the orchestra in the pit. That led eventually to the 2008 Glow in the Dark Tour, where he is just onstage alone. It’s a bit more normal now, but at that time, rappers had huge orchestras out there with them, big choirs. He had the confidence to fill the stage with just his own character.”
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Productions at the amphitheater scale can run upwards of $20 million, and Devlin is conscious of the brief period that viewers have to absorb it — the giant constructions, mind-bending visuals and 3D projections — but also acutely aware of conveying the soul of the material.
“Often you’re thinking about the artist in a basic psychological way: ‘What is their need to be doing this?’ Kanye was writing about losing his mother even before he actually lost her. He was casting himself as this lonely figure on a barren planet.”
BEYONCE: “The intelligence and the artistry, there is no difference. It’s total commitment at an incredible level,” says Devlin of Beyoncé, for whom she designed her set at the Made in America festival earlier in September.
Cutting her teeth in opera with its traditional lavish scenery has spoiled her a bit, she concedes: The projects that interest her are ambitious and well-financed; she isn’t the one you call for a one-man show off- Broadway. “If it doesn’t take at least three big trucks to move it, and preferably many more, I’m not there. I’d rather stay home and play with my kids.” She has two, Ry and Ludo, with her husband, costume designer Jack Galloway; they live in South London.
But unlike the luxury of time that opera affords Devlin (productions are typically booked years in advance), the erratic schedules of pop stars have forced her to conceive of and execute shows within three to six month time frames, during which she often collaborates with both the artist and their own creative teams.
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A voracious reader whose references veer from Alain de Botton to the geological origins of carbon, critics have sometimes accused Devlin of letting her designs overshadow the material. “I probably should be more worried about it,” she says with a sigh. “I just don’t know how to do it any other way.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard magazine.
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