Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Sheds Light on the Music

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Sheds Light on the Music

Article excerpt

David Belasco was a pioneer in the field of stage lighting, passionate about creating realistic effects, the most famous of which occurred in his one-act play Madame Butterfly, during which the action slowed to an almost total halt for a 14minute, lovingly rendered dawn sequence.

Puccini saw the play in London in 1900 and rushed backstage afterwards to find Belasco and make an immediate bid for the rights so as to turn it into an opera. Being a man much impressed by technical innovation, Puccini was especially struck by the dawn lighting and went on to incorporate the episode in his opera, as the culmination of Butterfly's nightlong vigil, waiting for the return of the faithless Pinkerton.

The lighting designer Peter Mumford has lit a number of productions of Madama Butterfly in his time and will be tackling the dawn sequence again for Opera North this autumn.

He is unusual in a profession in which many people tend to move constantly between opera, dance and drama, alongside forays into film and television. 'I trained as a stage designer originally, ' he says. 'I was at the Central School of Art, taught by Ralph Koltai, who was very interested in lighting, which meant that it was covered within the course, but only as a supplementary subject. I don't think there was any specific training for lighting in those days and, as a separate discipline, a recognised artform, it's a relatively new phenomenon. It was really just a matter of the chief electrician following instructions from the director saying "I need more light here." 'When I left Central I became part of an experimental theatre company called Moving Being. That was in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and we were using film and projection a great deal, and a mixture of dancers and actors. I ended up taking on every aspect of the design, including lighting. After that I moved into the dance world, mostly contemporary work, and very often the pieces were created on empty stages -- the lighting was the design. And that's really how I gained a reputation as a lighting designer more than anything else.' When you watch a rehearsal with 'working lights', in an unchanging lighting state, there is an air of flatness, a lack of detail and subtlety in what you see. Once a lighting designer gets to work that changes dramatically. 'It is in a sense the last creative act in the process of putting a production together, ' says Mumford. 'My work is a response to both the content of the performance and also to the surface of the design, which I regard as a canvas on which to work.

It's a painterly sort of discipline. I plan an overall palette for the look of the production and then work at the detail when I'm actually in the theatre, with all the other elements of set and costume design already in place.

'It's also useful to think of lighting in the theatre in a cinematic way, in the sense that it's got a lot to do with editing. You don't have a camera as you do in a movie so you can't actually zoom in or pan around on wide-shot, but lighting can fulfil that role of focusing, directing an audience's attention to a specific moment or action. Even with a play there's musicality in the mix as well; it affects the way in which states change and the tempo at which that happens.' This sort of intuitive approach requires good collaborators. Over the years Mumford has developed close working relationships with a range of people, from the choreographer Siobhan Davies to directors such as Peter Hall, Tim Albery and Anthony Minghella, and the designer Hildegard Bechtler. …

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