Shadow Plays: How Lighting Designers Bring an Opera to Vivid Life

By Hoile, Christopher | Opera Canada, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Shadow Plays: How Lighting Designers Bring an Opera to Vivid Life


Hoile, Christopher, Opera Canada


"DIE STRAHLEN DER SONNNE VERTREIBEN DIE NACHT." SO RUNS THE final chorus in Die Zauberflote, praising the triumph of the powers of light over darkness. In the opera house, those in real control of the powers of light and darkness are often the least-noticed members of the artistic team. These are the lighting designers. What they do makes it possible for us not merely to see an opera but also affects how we see it.

Conversations with four of Canada's top lighting designers--Vancouverite Alan Brodie, Calgary-based Harry Frehner and Kevin Fraser and Michael Whitfield of Stratford, Ontario--reveal a remarkable unity of vision concerning the role of lighting in opera. "The word all four use most often in describing the role of lighting is "support". Lighting constantly lends support to the work in reflecting the nature of both the music and the events on stage.

Lighting designers have various ways of characterizing their work. Brodie, likens his role to that of a film editor, since editing is crucial in determining the focus of an action and how the viewer perceives it. Fraser sees lighting as the glue that holds all the parts of the puzzle together. Whitfield views lighting as painting with light "to create a suitable environment for the action." Frehner considers the lighting designer a "facilitator who assists file performers in giving their art to the audience."

Lighting design is the most recent of the theatre arts to be considered a separate discipline. From 1545, when a book by Sebastiano Serlio first discussed techniques of stage lighting, into the early 20th century, lighting design was considered part of set design. Even so, many techniques we might consider modern, such as spotlights or color filters, were developed in the days of candles, oil lamps and gas lighting. In 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe opened the Savoy Theatre, the first public building, not to mention theatre, to be fit entirely by electricity.

The revolution in thinking about lighting was sparked by the work of Swiss designer Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) and English designer Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966). Both felt lighting should have a greater role than merely illuminating the set and recreating naturalistic light on stage. Rather, both argued lighting should create mood and atmosphere. Appia in particular felt Wagner's ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) could be achieved only if lighting, responding to the ever-changing music, replaced scenery. When Bayreuth reopened in 1951, Wieland Wagner's revolutionary productions of Parsifal and Der Ring dens Nibelungen put Appia's theories into practice. The confluence of new ideas about lighting with the new opportunities technology had made it possible, starting in the 1930s and '40s, for people who had trained as set designers or stage technicians to specialize in lighting design alone.

For Brodie, Fraser, Frehner and Whitfield, the ideal for an opera production is still the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which all elements of the production contribute to the ratified impact of an opera as music drama. Today, this ideal is generally possible only with new productions. The director's concept of the opera should include the staging, design and lighting, and all need to be discussed together from the outset. Not surprisingly, when asked to name their most satisfying experiences in lighting opera, all four chose their work on new productions where all the separate elements worked as one--the Canadian Opera Company's Tristan und Isolde (1987) for Whitfield, Vancouver Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor (2000) for Brodie, Opera Atelier's Peree (2000) for Fraser and Calgary Opera's world premiere of Filumena (2003) for Frehner.

The first thing all four do on receiving a new lighting assignment is to listen to recordings of the opera, if they exist. Unlike plays, where the text gives no clear indication of what approach a director might take, the music in opera has an implied dramaturgy, which directors, as Whitfield says, "ignore at their peril.

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