Long before the just-completed renovation of London's Royal Opera House (ROH) began, David Harvey joined the team of theatre consultants that would decide what lighting equipment would be put into the new building. "It was a somewhat daunting task since the building was changing week by week as the development team and architects were deciding the final layout," he recalls.
From his early days at the ROH in 1988 to where Harvey sits today, which is usually behind a production desk, the new building is light years ahead of the old one. "I'd put it like a quantum leap in technical terms," he says. "We had pushed the old building to its max, installing additional dimmers, lanterns, and equipment each season as the rep grew and expanded."
During the two and a half years that the Royal Opera House was closed, Harvey supervised the lighting for Royal Opera and Royal Ballet tours around the world, and for their seasons in borrowed London venues. At the same time, he designed the lighting for a number of new and existing pieces, including the Ring Cycle at Royal Albert Hall.
"Due to time restrictions, and a desire to see how far we could push the technology, I lit this using just 18 Vari superscript *Lite[R] VL7s[TM], which were only three months old at the time, and 18 VL5Arcs[TM]," he explains. "With just one and half days before first performance, we hooked it all up to our new ETC Obsession 2, with our chief board operator Nick Reid at the helm. We pulled the four shows off, with only the morning swap of five VL7s before breakfast to keep the riggers busy. It was useful to see how this technology can be used in opera."
As one of the two lighting managers at the ROH (the other is John Charlton), perhaps Harvey's biggest struggle has been balancing the needs of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies together in one fixed rig. "We allow designers a flexible focus of every lantern, though we always suggest they keep to some of our fixed washes, due to the tight schedule we are now running, with just four hours for a complete changeover and refocus."
The major difference is that the rig now contains a variety of over 80 automated instruments (including 40 ETC Source Fours in City Theatrical AutoYokes, 10 Wybron CXIs permanently on front-of-house equipment, and 10 High End Systems Studio Spots[TM]). "We have to be as flexible as possible for new shows coming in, but with still the bulk of our repertory going back for up to 40 years, the rig needs to be able to contend with these often delicately lit productions and the more recent contemporary operas and ballets," explains Harvey.
"Hopefully we've reached a happy medium, and each year we will reflect on the comments and ideas for the previous season and change accordingly. This first year is no exception, with another 50 moving heads making their way into the permanent rig. Unfortunately the battle is to convince everyone of the need for more production time to plot the cues."
Last summer the Kirov Opera and Ballet performed at the ROH, putting even more demands on the lighting managers. "The Russians have just left us after an exhausting season," notes Harvey. "Their final opera pushed us probably the furthest so far, running at 70% capacity on the new stage dimmers (260 PAR cans taking most of the blame for this). They also had four E\T\C PIGI scrollers running on Pani BP6 Golds creating some dazzling images on the wraparound cyc."
Harvey still feels most at home at the production desk, assisting designers, and more recently, relighting shows within the rep. "It's a privilege to work alongside some of the world's top designers. This has been the best apprenticeship in lighting design you could have," he says. "The key to success in this area is to keep a cool head at all times, and never say no, simply suggest alternatives and nine out of 10 you get them the result they like, and a show that can be mounted within the realm of practicality."
Interested in lighting from the age of 12, Harvey joined London's White Light after college, to learn the trade. After two years there, he went freelance for a year, working commercial events. "In 1988 I was very lucky," he admits. "I was in the right place at the right time when a temporary position at Covent Garden became available while the Royal Ballet toured to Australia." Within two years, he was promoted to assistant head of the lighting department, and then as a team leader in 1994 when the system changed. "Four teams of 19 crew members were given overall technical responsibility for seeing shows in and out of the building."
One thing he would like to do more of is lighting design, and he has been asked to light a number of shows this year, including a new three-act ballet for the Latvian National Ballet and Marriage of Figaro in the Linbury Studio theatre at the ROH. "It's certainly an area that I hope will grow in the future," admits Harvey.
So why has he stayed at the Royal Opera House so long? "Apart from the everyday challenge, the worldwide tours, the new technology, and perhaps the kudos of working at Covent Garden, it's really the people that make this place what it is, and the friends and colleagues I've met and worked with along the way," Harvey says. "That's what I'll miss the most when the time comes to move on."