Thanks to a bit of cultural synchronicity, French LD Jean Kalman designed the lighting for Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea, two of the three operas presented in Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) Monteverdi Cycle this spring. It was a wonderful opportunity to see these early-17th-century pieces, as well as two very different instances of Kalman's lighting techniques.
Ulisse (center and bottom right) was a scrumptious production directed by Adrian Noble of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, in conjunction with musical director William Christie and the France-based Les Arts Florissants. Originally performed in the 17th-century jewel-box-sized Théâtre du Jeu-de-Paume in Aix-en-Provence, as part of the summer opera festival there, this Ulisse was designed by London-based Anthony Ward to fit into a small space, so the transfer to BAM's Harvey Theatre was rather easy.
“In Aix, I had no choice,” says Kalman. “The side walls of the set were just inches from the walls of the theatre, which has 400 seats and was just restored.” His solution: the use of Svoboda light curtains for crosslight; these were replaced in Brooklyn with aircraft landing lights in banks of eight on either side of the stage.
There are also a few 5kW fresnels with scrollers used for backlight. “In Aix you could hear every sound, so when I asked for scrollers they were worried,” Kalman explains. “But we put the fans on dimmers so we could run them at the right temperature for the gels and reflect the intensity of the music. We could cut the fans completely when the 5ks were not on.”
The lighting is very warm and sparkling as well, adding texture to Ward's simple, sand-colored set. “It reflects a conversation I had with Adrian,” notes Kalman. “We wanted the audience to have great pleasure in being there with us, and to say ‘how delicious.’ I guess it was a success,” he says with an impish grin. One of the reviews even called it “transcendental lighting.”
One of the things that gives the lighting this quality is Kalman's color mixtures. He likes to make gel sandwiches, layering Lee 201 (full CT blue) with Rosco 54 (special lavender) to “pale” it down. “This is a good mix for the HMIs.” he says. “I could play with minus green, but the lavender makes it a little more blue.” Another favorite is L205 (half CT orange) with L151 (gold tint) for warmth.
Poppea (top and left) had a rather harsh, abstract set meant to echo the emptiness at the heart of Rome under Emperor Nero's rule: large black walls, hard-edged rocks, and an expansive backdrop of crumpled metallic fabric. “I used more HMIs here, as well as 1kW low-voltage beam lights we brought from Amsterdam,” says Kalman, who likes the power and quality of these lights. “It's like there's something there,” he says, rubbing his fingers together as if touching the light.
Oddly, some of the beam lights were on stands in the far side aisles of the BAM opera house. “This is due to the size of the stage in Amsterdam, which is very wide,” Kalman notes. “There was no room on the stage in Brooklyn, but these diagonal positions are part of the dynamic of the staging.” This dynamic also called for the singers to move in and out of the light. At one moment they can be in a harsh, blasting light, and the next be in warm tungsten light.
“I am interested in ‘bad lighting’ with the singers always on the edge of being out of the light,” says Kalman. “They might have a hot spot on their chests and very little light on their faces. In this case, it works with their movement and the abrupt changes in the music.”
In being “bad,” Kalman is interested in seeing just how far he can go. “Lighting normally shouldn't be like that,” he says. “It's a complex question of what is dark and what is lit. But it works because it's action and adds tension to the show.”