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Dante Ferretti on Doing His First Rock Opera, ‘Divo Nerone’ and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Triple Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti  (“The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Hugo”) is tackling his first musical, “Divo Nerone,” which basically portrays Roman emperor Nero as a good soul gone bad. Dubbed a rock opera, the show is being staged in a unique open-air venue atop the Palatine Hill in the real Roman Forum.

Italian entertainment company TicketOne has now set a June 1 opening date for the roughly two-hour show produced by Rome’s Artisti Associati. It will have 28 scene changes and 36 musical numbers. The lyrics are penned by Grammy Award-winning lyricist Franco Migliacci (“Volare”) and the music composed by Luis Bacalov, who won an Oscar for the “Il Postino” score, and also by other, younger tunesmiths. The director-choreographer is Gino Landi, a veteran of the Italian musical stage.

Ferretti spoke to Variety about this new high-concept challenge and also about his work in Taiwan on Martin Scorsese’s passion project “Silence,” which marks their ninth collaboration. Excerpts:

You’ve worked with many great directors, designed a theme park, done installations for the Milan expo, even the decor for a restaurant in Manhattan. What was the specific challenge of this musical?

I’ve done lots of operas, but it’s the first time I do a musical and also an outdoor production. I really liked the story, so when they offered it to me I was stimulated by the thought of tackling something new. Since there are lots of scene changes, the only thing I could think of doing was to build a rotating proscenium. Every time it moves, you get a new set. That was my biggest idea for this production. The director and the producers liked it, and I think it’s pretty effective.

I heard that one of the sets is inspired by Nero’s real rotating banquet hall, the Coenatio Rotunda, which was powered by a constant flow of water and is considered the forerunner of today’s rotating restaurants. Did you do a lot of research?

I did know quite a bit about Ancient Rome, but I also read up on the history and the time period. And I also studied musicals to come up with how this rotating device could work effectively.

How did you incorporate the Colosseum into the show?

Behind the stage you can see a bit of the [real] Colosseum, which we’ve lit since it’s a show that will play at night. The lighting is actually the most important thing because it will create the right atmosphere for the time period and for the fire that destroyed much of Rome. We are going to have it so the Colosseum is also on fire for what I hope will be great scenic and emotional effect.

It sounds like fun. Was it?

It’s work and it really is another challenge, I always say that. I’ve been doing this job for 40 years and I’m still curious. I like doing different things. Actually what I really like is imperfection. If I’m working on a movie set in the 17th century I don’t want to replicate and reconstruct things exactly. If you do it too perfectly it becomes fake; instead, if you make a few mistakes, it becomes real. I’m like a Method actor delving into the role of a 17th-century architect. At first I study the period, but then I just go ahead with what my gut tells me to do.

When you mentioned the 17th century, it brought to mind your work on Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” Can you tell me what working on that was like?

We went to Taiwan to make the movie, which is set in Japan in 1620. I had prepared [for] this film five times before we actually got to shoot it because [previously] the money never came through. Previously I’d done scouting in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Northern California, Canada. Then we ended up making another movie with Martin [“The Wolf of Wall Street”]. “Silence” is my ninth movie with him. I also did the costumes for this film. Then we went to Taipei where there was a studio with affordable prices and the surrounding area looked like Japan. So we rebuilt a part of [ancient] Nagasaki and some villages and areas of Macao. The coast of Taiwan is quite similar to Japan.

Have you seen “Silence”?

No, I’ve seen footage, but I haven’t been able to see the completed film yet. But I’m going to New York soon and I will ask Martin to show it to me. This is a film that Martin cares so much about; it’s been in gestation for more than 20 years. Those who have seen it tell me it’s really very beautiful.

What can you tell me about Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” his announced mob movie pairing Robert De Niro and Al Pacino? 

We’ve talked about it;  but we still have to see when and how it will be shot. I never say ‘I’m doing to do this or that’ until it’s signed. Theoretically we’ve talked about shooting this film next year in February or March.

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