One of the first Royal Ballet productions to hit the stage of the newly renovated Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in London is the full-length Coppelia. The sets and costumes were designed by the late visual artist/stage designer Osbert Lancaster, who designed the original production, with its old-fashioned painted backdrops and peasant-style costumes, in 1954. The entire production was rebuilt for this revival, which was lit by John B. Read.
"I wanted to light it like a storybook, with a larger-than-life look," says Read, who has been the resident lighting consultant at the Royal Ballet for the past 18 years. "They worked hard to recreate the paint quality of the original sets." Read used big, bold statements and in fact the contemporary slant of his lighting helped keep the production from seeming hopelessly kitsch.
In an effort not to change the colors on the sets, Read kept as much light off the drops as possible. For the general stage lighting he used ETC Source Fours (26 degrees) with a hard focus and either a frost or pale yellow (Rosco 07) filter. Since the set design limited Read's use of sidelight, he used fixtures at the ends of the light pipes, just inside of the scenery.
In the opening scene, as the ballerina/doll Coppelia sits in an upper-story window, she is lit from above, below, and with small fixtures inside the window to light the front of her body. Lurking in the shadows of the room behind her is Dr. Coppelius, the old doll-maker, also lit very softly from the side and front so that the audience just gets a glimpse of him.
Once the peasant girls have broken into the doll-maker's atelier, they play with the various dolls and pull on a rope to animate a wooden horse. "I wanted to say 'Hey, look at this for a minute,' so there is a light focused on the horse," says Read, who used another 26-degree Source Four shuttered tightly with a full frost filter to take the edge off the light. "They respond very quickly and flash nicely."
To light the ensemble numbers, Read wanted a bright yet creamy effect to light the dancers so he mixed the light pink of Rosco 05 with Rosco 01 Bastard Amber, with some lavender from above. "This keeps the skin tones more pastel so the ballerinas look like dolls."
Other lighting solutions were surprisingly simple. For a dozen stars glittering on the night backdrop, for example, he added a few pinspots. Lights behind the set shine like bulbs through holes in a painted chandelier in the town church. And little flicker lights give the illusion of candles in a dance sequence featuring the peasant girls.
For the first 10 years of his career at the Royal Ballet, Read lit all of the productions, but in recent years the company has brought in more outside designers. In turn, Read has developed a freelance career, working for companies such as Scottish Ballet, London Festival Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theatre, Dutch National Ballet, Rambert Dance Company, and London Contemporary Dance Theatre.
"I am dedicated to lighting dance and do so with a passion and fervor," he says, admitting that he once lit opera and theatre as well, but has now been typecast as a ballet designer. "That's where I am most happy. I understand where the dancers are coming from and they use a language I can understand. I like to make them look visually wonderful within the context of the production. I am interested in the total visual impact of each ballet."
Read was influential in planning an updated lighting rig during the time the Royal Opera House was under renovation. His parameters for the new equipment included staying within the prescribed budgetary limits yet making the system flexible enough for outside designers. "Everybody could use bits of it and feel comfortable. We can also add a few pieces if needed," he says. The only moving lights in the rig, which is shared with the Royal Opera, are conventional fixtures in automated yokes by City Theatrical and Licht Technik.
The lighting positions tucked under the balconies on three levels (0 to 25-degree angles above the stage) were extended in the recent renovation of the house. There are four followspot positions in the central dome above the audience (at a 35-degree angle above the stage), where there are also 12 Source Four 10-degree ellipsoidals. In the center of the old part of the dome are the followspot positions first used in 1901 where there are currently eight 10-degree Source Fours. All the front-of-house Source Fours were added in the recent retrofit of the lighting system. ETC also supplied the Obsession II console and associated ethernet/ DMX data networks.
In relighting this revival of Coppelia, Read had fun with the lighting as a signal to the audience that they should have fun with the production as well. "It has a very modern, pop-art feeling," he says. "I want you to have fun looking at it. My key into the production was to take all my cues from the dancers. They were having fun with it as well."