A Little Light Music: How Lighting Design Impacts Opera

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There is a generation of people who work in the performing arts, mostly in their 50s and 60s, who are known as “Gilbert’s Children.” All of us had the same master instructor and draw on his wisdom as if it were genetically part of who we are. Gilbert Hemsley (1936-1983) was the kind of inspiring teacher one is lucky to have. He drew the best out of each student and knew how to shine a light on every person’s strengths.

While most of us learned from Gilbert (as all students called him) at the University of Wisconsin, his natural propensity for instruction meant that anyone who worked for him in any setting inevitably came away having learned something. His zenith both as an educator and an artist came in the 1970s, when he juggled his teaching responsibilities with professional assignments.

Gilbert often had it written into his work contracts that he could take a few students along, ostensibly for learning, but also providing superb hands-on experience and a production credit for when we sought work in the “real” world of the performing arts. I was part of the group Gilbert took to Washington to work the Jimmy Carter inaugural events in January 1977. One of Gilbert’s foremost students was Duane Schuler who has taken much of that knowledge and combined it with his own talents to forge a great career.

Gilbert had an expression, “to make things happen,” which sounds simple enough. It meant how to use your reasoning and, often, technology, to solve problems that came up in a theater. These were frequently production issues but, as often as not, they were about personalities, motivations and how humanness ultimately trumped machinery in all things. He was a master of machinery but was not romantic about it in the way most tech-oriented people are. He also was one of the great teachers of arts management in all of its forms and, in that context “to make things happen” was almost always about the human element.

Lighting is what Gilbert specialized in. Above all, this meant lighting for the stage, whether it was theater, opera, dance, or even an event where one person would get up to speak. The way that person was “lit” could entirely change the way he or she was perceived by the audience. Harsh light, dim light, warm light, cold light, direct light, indirect light – if you think of these variables, you begin to have a sense of what a lighting designer must do.

Gilbert studied at the Yale School of Drama and, after graduating in 1960, was the assistant to the great Jean Rosenthal, whose lighting choices were vivid and lucid (a lighting word if ever there was one) and seemed oriented to expression and mood as much as mere illumination. Gilbert worked on numerous Broadway shows, performances of ballet and modern dance, concerts of every genre as well as opera. He often worked at the New York City Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and he lit two new productions at the Met in 1976: Aïda and Lohengrin

Bright Ideas for Aïda and Lohengrin

The Aïda alternated bright scenes during grand processions with a very atmospheric Nile scene and a finale in a tomb whose ever-receding lighting suggested the ebbing lives of Aïda and Radames. Gilbert had to light a large set by David Reppa that was even taller than it was wide, so that it had a monumentality that diminished the stature of the chorus and supernumeraries (extras), though not the stars Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Cornell MacNeil and James Morris.

In Lohengrin, an August Everding production I adored with sets by Ming Cho Lee, who was a popular designer at that time (including a brilliant Boris Godunov), Gilbert subtly communicated the conflict between light (the noble Lohengrin) and darkness (the scheming Ortrud) and the murky emotional conflicts of Elsa. He did not illustrate these, in the strictest sense, which would be crude and overt, but rather created settings and environments of light in which we watched these characters. This scene is one that I found from a video made in the early 1980s with Eva Marton, Leonie Rysanek and Peter Hoffmann. It is lit for television audiences, which blunts much of one sees in the theater (yet another reason to attend live opera whenever possible!).

I was surprised to find that the famous Morgenröte scene, in which music narrates the gathering forces of people at the first light of morning, was not shown in this video. Perhaps it was too hard to illuminate for TV. In the opera house, this was a brilliant lighting coup as the chorus, on a stage platform, rolled slowly forward toward the audience, appearing from darkness through fog and mist to then suddenly burst forth in song. Instead, be your own lighting designer and listen to what effects the music (spectacularly played by James Levine and the Met Orchestra) suggests: 

By 1990, I had begun to do consulting for arts companies on many issues (theater design, casting, publicity, press issues, broadcasting, fundraising and more) and I could hear Gilbert’s teachings on “making things happen” in my head on so many occasions. One thing he told me was, in effect, a consultant can give original, reasoned and expert advice but there is no guarantee anyone will take it. Often, board chairmen or senior executives had already decided what they wanted to do and funds were spent on consultants who, it was hoped, would second those notions. The good consultant, though, is the person who gives the best-informed advice and then can hope that it will be accepted but will not try to impose it.

In the 1990s I advised a couple of regional opera companies that were trying to create innovative profiles and distinctive design in presenting standard repertory. They had medium-sized budgets and I suggested that they spend proportionately more on getting the greatest singers they could afford, ones who usually sing in more famous houses, but to “build” productions that rely much more on light and less on scenery. This was an era in which Zeffirellian heft was what was looked to in scenic design. It certainly has its place, but is not the only way to do opera.

Light could be used not only to illuminate sets or faces, but to create playing spaces on the stage. Projections of slides and images can suggest more realistic contexts if those are desired, but such realism can sometimes be limiting rather than enlightening. It takes great taste and judgment to decide these things, but it is another way to make an opera production “happen” when done with great artistry. The companies I worked for took my advice on many topics, but not this one. They ultimately felt that, to be a major player, they had to have big sets that are lit rather than selectively use light as the setting.

Making Scenery Out of Light

I was thinking of this the other day while attending the play “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” at the Rose Theater that was brought from Japan as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival. It is based on a novel by Yukio Mishima, adapted for the stage by Serge Lamothe and directed by Amon Miyamoto. While one could discuss the play (which I liked more than the critic for The New York Times), that is not the purview of this blog.

“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” had the most amazing lighting design I have seen in any production of anything for many a year. The very simple, boxy set was turned into an endless stream of specific and evocative settings by the designer Yuji Sawada with judicious rather than overbearing projections by Yasunori Kakegawa. We had temples, of course, but also classrooms, brothels, fields, night, day, war, peace and dozens more. All were made with light and just the fewest pieces of light scenery and props, in that spare and essential Japanese way. There were a couple of flawed moments (neon lights that blinded the audience’s view; strobe light effects that by now are a stereotypical trope) but, for the most part, this was lighting as illumination and design of the highest order. Things were made to happen and art was served. Gilbert would have been pleased.

More on lighting and illumination in future posts, but I leave you with an aria about light of a different kind: “O Luce di quest’anima” (Oh, light of this soul) from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix sung in 1997 by Mariella Devia.

Weigh in: When has lighting design impacted your appreciation of an opera? Have you seen any really effective or ineffective lighting?