Parsifal designer Johan Engels enlisted artist Andy Zakszeski-Marr to reinterpret one of the most recognizable vessels known to man: the Holy Grail. Andy recently answered some of Lyric Opera’s questions about his collaboration with Engels, and how the piece came together for the stage.


Parsifal, Act 3. Todd Rosenberg Photography

Everyone’s heard of the Holy Grail. Entwined in Arthurian literature and Christianity, the Grail has been a source of inspiration across the ages for poets, authors, artists, composers, and screenplay writers alike. Richard Wagner’s Parsifal is no exception. As a central component in this epic masterpiece, creating the iconic symbol for Lyric Opera’s new production was no small task. 

Parsifal designer Johan Engels enlisted artist Andy Zakszeski-Marr to reinterpret one of the most recognizable vessels known to man. Andy recently answered some of Lyric Opera’s questions about his collaboration with Engels, and how the piece came together for the stage. View photo gallery.

LO: Did Johan indicate what he was looking for or did he give you carte blanche to create?

AZM: Johan told me he wanted a non-traditional Grail, and I was very excited. Making the traditional chalice would not have been as much fun and I believe it would have limited the directions in which I could go. This “drinking vessel” type Grail allowed me to be very free with shape and form. Other than knowing the dimensions Johan wanted and the incorporating of gold and metallic into the glazing, he really gave me full rein to express myself as an artist with this piece. When we met to discuss the vessels and direction of the Grail he showed me the set and costume renderings and I was immediately captivated. 

LO: What inspired the various designs that you created for the Grail?

AZM: As an artist I connect with more organic shapes and textures instead of things that are too contrived or manufactured looking. In all of my Grail designs I focused on nature, water, and the earth. Since Johan indicated that he would like several pieces to choose from it really gave me the ability to experiment with different looks. 

LO: It must have been challenging as an artist to have to create a piece that is THE central component for another artist's work. Were you nervous? 

AZM: Johan saw my work and immediately entrusted me with the project. But I was very nervous right up until the selection meeting. I was really not sure if Johan would like any of them. ‘Surely there will be one he likes,’ I kept thinking. Johan’s reaction to all of the Grails was overwhelmingly good. I was very relieved and very proud. 

LO: Were you surprised that Johan chose the piece that he did? 

AZM: Yes! There were others that I thought he might pick over the one he did ultimately choose. I thought that he would choose one of the Grails that had great glazing color – blues and greens on the outside and gold inside. But I completely understand now why he chose the one he did and I believe that the unique texture on the outside of that Grail reads magnificently from everywhere in the house. 

LO: The "chosen" Grail is beautiful—simple and yet nuanced in texture, glaze, shape, etc. How did you achieve that affect?

AZM: Thank you! I began all of the Grails with a hand-rolled slab of white stoneware approximately 3/8 of an inch thick. The texture is applied to the flat slab which is then placed on a variety of handmade forms to slowly dry. I remember making this Grail using branches to texture the outside and immediately thought it looked like roots. I just knew that the texture would be fantastic once glazed. When that Grail came out of the bisque kiln (the initial firing before glaze fire), I picked it up and knew it would be a final contender based on how good it felt in my hands. 

LO: That sounds like a lot of work! How many hours did you put into creating this?

AZM: The slab work, trimming, sculpting, and glazing of that Grail took about 3 hours. The amount of time the Grail was actually in the kiln for bisque firing and final glaze firing was approximately 38 hours.

LO: After all this work, what were your thoughts when the Grail appeared onstage during opening night?

AZM: It was an amazingly surreal moment for me. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Creating the Grails and being involved in this process with Johan has been a fantastic experience. I’m  grateful for the opportunity to work with a world-class designer like him. As I watched the Grail on stage I thought about its journey along with my own as an artist. I especially was thinking about those around me who inspire me and support me. There was also a little voice inside me saying, ‘I hope Parsifal doesn’t drop it!’