Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses is one of the earliest masterpieces in operatic history, so naturally Welsh National Opera turned to the Pet Shop Boys' designer for its new production.
Ian MacNeil has designed world tours for the pioneering 80s electro band, as well as the stage musical Billy Elliot and Stephen Daldry's multi award-winning An Inspector Calls. So, confronted with a musical treatment of Greek myth created in 17th century Italy, where did he begin?
"George Devine, the artistic director who started the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, said 'the trick is to take new plays and treat them like classics and to take classics and treat them like new plays'. I think this is a great phrase for explaining what you do as a set designer," says Mac-Neil.
"It's trying to approach a work without preconceptions. Essentially, trying to rid it of its visual cliches, just as it was when Monteverdi wrote it with no received ideas about how to stage such a work.
"You're also trying to create clean, clear, memorable stage pictures without froufrou on them.
"The trick with theatre is to try and make it memorable because it's not recorded, that's the point. It only lives in the moment and then it lives in the mind. So what you're struggling to do is to create memorable moments which the audience can take away with them."
Although opera is not a new medium for MacNeil, he is more often to be found designing a new theatre production. However, he doesn't think there is much difference between the two art forms.
"The world of working in an opera house is different from the world of working in a theatre, but the exercise of trying to help things resonate off the page is much the same," explains MacNeil.
"I do tend to design less for opera than theatre, so I always think, 'Oh am I allowed, do I know enough about it?'. But I think that is a healthy way to approach things.
"I'm someone that listens to a great range of music from 80s pop to early music and I go to plays and films, in particular contemporary film or 1950s films. All those things interest me, so it's nice to put that interest somewhere in the work that I do."
As set designer, MacNeil works as part of a production team with director David Alden, costume designer Gideon Davey and lighting designer Simon Mills. Alden's approach to opera is often called radical, surreal or, as MacNeil puts it, weird. So can we expect more of the same in Ulysses?
"Unlike theatre, opera allows you to be slightly abstracted - it doesn't take place in kitchens or people's front rooms - but you want the right amount of weird," continues Mac-Neil.
"Weird is good, it's like dissonance in music, it startles you into it rather than numbing you away from it, and I think David is very good at that.
"At his best, he is weird is for a very good reason; it's about engaging the audience rather than letting them be passive and fall away from it."
We know we are in for a dramatic and spectacular production but there is always the age-old question with opera - why isn't it a traditional production?
MacNeil is quick to answer: "As David would say, these pieces exist in three time zones. They exist the time in which they were written, the time in which they refer to and the time in which they are being watched.
"It seems to me that you don't have to respond only to only one period - Shakespeare didn't do his Roman shows in togas.
"I think you have to be clear yourself emotionally about where you are pulling things from and why, but hopefully for an audience it should coalesce and you work hard to make it feel like one event which has coherence and development through it.
"Of course, you always stay true to the story. There is no point doing otherwise, it's a piece of theatre, it's about what happens and about how well you tell the story.
"I don't see a purpose in not serving the story, because that is what we are there for.
"We use the 1920s and 1930s as inspiration really. It's an obvious period to draw on if you are going to talk about the futility and decadence of war and to talk about men and their delusions and arrogance around war. But when you start to talk about where different elements of the design have come from it comes apart and begins to break down into fragments and that is not the point.
"The point is that it is a coherent world and a whole, wherever you have pulled things from."
So with all these different elements influencing this new production, can MacNeil sum it all up in one sentence?
He answers at once: "Epic and intimate. Epic because of the Trojan War and yet intimate because it works as a beautiful human story and that's where it's strongest.
"It's simply my job to provide the environment where the epic and the intimate can take place."
* Welsh National Opera performs The Return of Ulysses at the Birmingham Hippodrome tomorrow night (7.15pm). Other shows this week are La Boheme (Wed/Fri), Tristan and Isolde (Sat) and Chorus!, a fully-staged, fully-costumed showcase for the Chorus and Orchestra of WNO on Thursday (Box office: 0870 730 1234).