Visual Metaphors in Scenic Design


Intermediate high school

Resources websites:


To have students tour the maquette collection to find examples of visual metaphors.


Through research and analysis of visual metaphors onstage, students will practice recognition and interpretation of visual imagery.

Background for the lesson

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which something is compared to something else without the use of “like” or “as.” (A comparison using “like” or “as” is a simile.) Metaphor offers an implied comparison.

Example: As the sun set behind the pines, the trees marched along the brow of the hill in perfect formation.

A visual metaphor occurs when a person, place, thing or idea is represented by a visual image that suggests a comparison, or association. Visual metaphors can stimulate the brain of the viewer so that, in the case of scenic design, the individual sees the work onstage in a more insightful way, making parallels and drawing conclusions that promote enjoyment, interpretation and engagement.


Draw students’ attention to the maquette for the opera, Idomeneo, rè di Creta, by iconic set designer Josef Svoboda.

Discuss the following questions and considerations with them:

  • The large white head – like the head of a statue – that comprises the set is an imposing symbol of power and authority.
  • What else do the interpret the head to represent besides power and authority?
  • What significance might size have?
  • Why do they think that it was created in white?
  • What significance could there be in the ability of the head to fracture into smaller components?


  • Have students check the background material presented in the house program notes for clues about how this remarkable design adds to the story-telling.
  • Ask each student to find one example of a maquette which they consider having elements of visual metaphor.
  • Have students present their findings to the class, commenting on what they see in the design that allows them to make associations or parallels.