A Sense of Danger: Liliana Duque Piñeiro’s ‘Tosca’ design to indicate ‘broken Rome’


When set designer and sculptor Liliana Duque Piñeiro started college, she had no idea she would end up in stage design.

“I guess it’s just a happy accident because I didn’t know that you could study stage design,” Duque Piñeiro said. “I was studying in Colombia in South America and that whole theater production degree doesn’t exist like that.”

Fast forward to 2022, Duque Piñeiro has already designed two opera sets for the Chautauqua Opera Company 2022 season, first Thumbprint and now Tosca, which will have its second performance of the season at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 18, in Norton Hall.

Under the direction of Sarah Ina Meyers from the Metropolitan Opera and the baton of Steven Osgood, who is the general and artistic director of the Chautauqua Opera, Tosca is about a woman who fights for the man she loves and will do anything to protect him. While sometimes deemed a misogynistic opera where men manipulate a naive woman, Meyers and Osgood — supported by Duque Piñeiro’s set design — instead tell the story of a broken world where unconditional love is truly honorable.

Duque Piñeiro’s journey in set design began while studying sculpture at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. She stumbled into stage design during an interior design class where her professor, an opera production manager, had the class design opera sets to teach them about creating sets for different time periods.

“You had to design the set, so if it happens in 1800, you need to know the period. If it happens in the beginning of the 1900s, it’s a totally different style, and I just fell in love with that,” Duque Piñeiro said.

After that experience, Duque Piñeiro continued with her education in sculpture, ultimately graduating with her bachelor’s, and moving to the United States to attend the University of Cincinnati for a Master of Arts in sculpture.

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer Alvarez and Packer perform against the backdrop of Liliana Duque Piñeiro’s set in Norton Hall, featuring a staircase designed to sit at a sharper angle, indicating discomfort.

“One of my teachers … she said, ‘Why don’t you just go and take some classes at the theater department and just understand the space?’ — because I used to do little objects — (and she said) ‘You need to think big.’ ”

This not only encouraged her to create large installation sculptures, but cemented her love for set design.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it,’ ” she said.

For the set of Tosca, Duque Piñeiro worked to help create Meyers’ vision of a broken Rome.

“My aesthetic has been more toward that which is not as pretty, but something that you question, ‘Why is it like that?’ ” she said.

The staircase in the Tosca set helps convey the idea of something being not quite right.

“The staircase is not like the way you would find a staircase, like as a rectangle,” she said. “We decided to go more angled, so it’s kind of shifted. It gives you the impression from when you first see it that it’s a forced perspective, but it’s really just an uncomfortable angle. It feels different.”

The set is minimal, uncomfortable and broken, which is a departure from traditional sets of other productions of Tosca. In Chautauqua Opera’s Tosca, instead of Cavaradossi painting the Marchesa Attavanti, he repairs a broken stained glass window of her.

“Everything is broken, like something bad has happened,” she said. “A lot of the concept was just to go for something that, from the beginning, has a sense of danger.”

The choices Chautauqua Opera made that stray from traditional renderings of Tosca all came about to place the focus on the vibrant and complex characters Puccini created.

“The concept for us was, let’s forget about that,” Duque Piñeiro said. “Let’s forget about the decoration. Let’s forget about the distractions. Let’s just focus on the journey that Tosca and Cavaradossi are (on). Let us focus on the human experience and forget about everything else.”

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The author Megan Brown

Megan Brown previously managed the business office of The Chautauquan Daily, but she returns as a reporter for the 2022 season. This fall she will graduate from Houghton College with degrees in writing and communication. Outside of class, she works as the co-editor-in-chief of her college’s newspaper The Houghton STAR and consults in the writing center. Megan loves any storytelling medium, traveling and learning new crochet patterns from YouTube.