For many years, Duane Schuler has lit as many as 18 to 20 operas per year, including new productions and revivals. He has decided to pull back a bit and light fewer shows this year, perhaps just an even dozen, as well as relinquish his long-standing position as resident lighting designer at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. “It was just too much,” he said on a cold winter day in New York, as he talked about three of his most recent new productions: two in Chicago, and one at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

A ROOM FOR RIGOLETTO

For Christopher Alden's production of Rigoletto in Chicago, Schuler found himself encountering Verdi in a period gentlemen's club designed by Michael Levine. “It was a proper paneled room,” says Schuler, describing an ornate, old-world environment of long dresses and velvet smoking jackets. The unit set had a full coffered ceiling (painted with gold trim), with bays built in to allow a certain degree of backlight. As 90% of the rep plot was not usable in this case, Schuler relied on PAR cans as backlight, and was able to use to 24 Vari*Lite® VL5B automated luminaires as refocusing specials: six on the front bridge (which was not blocked by the ceiling) and six each on three other bridges. “The ceiling acted as a cyc in theory,” Schuler adds. “It became the surface on the set where the color registered the most. It took color beautifully.”

The opera opens in a rather conventional world. The set is accented with the warm lights of lamps and practicals, as well as Strand 2k fresnels providing sunlight through the windows. “There is a very normal feeling at first,” says Schuler. “The light gets harsher as the act progresses until it is quite edgy and cold. The sunlight is replaced by open HMIs.”

The set seems more contained in Act II, with less light coming into the closed interior space. Schuler also added some color into this act, replacing the HMI fixtures outside the windows with Strand 5k fresnels and Wybron Forerunner color scrollers. The VL5Bs have also been refocused on the furniture in warmer tints and a pinkish edge for a love duet between the Duke and Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter. For Schuler, “the heavier use of color in Act II reinforced what is happening emotionally onstage.”

Describing Act II as “the height of decadence,” as well as “a little surreal,” Schuler added fire effects with GAM Products TwinSpins and Rosco effects wheels as if fires were burning in the middle of the room, as well as in the fireplace. “At this point, the furniture has been turned on its side,” he says. “It is the morning after an orgy. There are still signs of a night of lust.”

The final scene takes place with a white shroud on the floor to cover Gilda's body, and all the props and furniture have been stripped away to show the desperation of the scene, as if all the trappings of the real world are gone. Four ETC Source Fours are focused tightly on the shroud with bounce light on the actors. At the very end, a 2.5k Altman HMI sends a strong shaft of light through an open doorway upstage, silhouetting a lone figure.

A SHIMMERING DUTCHMAN

Also in Chicago, Schuler lit Nikolaus Lehnhoff's dramatic new production of Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), an experience he refers to as “the most fun I've had in a long time.” Once again, the rep plot was not particularly usable. “The whole idea of a rep plot doesn't seem to work so well anymore,” he muses. “Today, you need a very specific rig for each opera.” Especially so in this case, where the set by Raimund Bauer has a raked floor made of shiny stainless steel and eight silver Formica-covered portals placed 4' apart.

“There was light bouncing all over the place,” Schuler reports. However, he discovered that he could use followspots from the towers without seeing their light on the ground. “It is always a black void,” he reveals. “The advantage is that light on people does not show on the floor. This is a great look when it is right for the piece.” He also found that the shiny floor gave the set a crisp look with high contrast, while the portals took color beautifully. “The singers absolutely shimmered in the midst of this world.”

Relying greatly on sidelight, Schuler had booms built into each portal, with three rows of lights on each side: Two Source Fours hung low on the boom as crosslights off the floor and off the portals as very narrow bands just to hit people and make them appear in space; two PAR cans with scrollers as higher crosslight focused directly on the portals across the stage; and two Altman 6×12 360Qs retrofitted with new reflectors on the top of the boom to use as high side crosslight for special moments in the opera. Additional crosslight with Lee 201 color correction filters was used to light a bridge that flies in with all the sailors in the cast, and spans the width of the stage.

The light was affected by the fact that almost the entire production was played behind two front scrims: A water scrim is used in Act I; a shadow scrim in Act II, and both in Act III. The silver floor extended past the border of the scrims, so that Schuler was able to focus 10° Source Fours from the front cove, discovering that “they cast interesting shadows on the scrims.”

The costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer also played a role in the look of the lighting. “They are very stylized, and made of silver metallic fabric and black velvet, with very high contrast,” notes Schuler. At one point, the dresses are made of silver Mylar hoops (like hoop skirt frames) that shimmer in the light. Source Fours (the top set on the booms) are shuttered high to catch the dancers, who also have a little frontlight on them from the bridge.

The most dramatic element in the production is a giant ship's propeller that comes in for the Dutchman's entrance. A compact 4kW Arri HMI and Arri 1.2kW PARs behind the upper blades create a strong beam of light in a smoke-filled atmosphere, and then soften to give a reflection of the propeller on the floor. The compact Arri fixtures have become one of Schuler's favorites. “This is now the HMI fresnel of choice for the opera house,” he ventures to say. “For me, it has the best controlled light levels; the field is beautiful. It is smooth, even, and very clean.

“As soon as the Dutchman enters, we took the HMIs down to 20% or the reflection would have been blinding in the balcony,” Schuler admits. He also added crosslight on the Dutchman himself. At another moment, the Dutchman appears in an open door in the upstage silver wall, and a painted drop of the sea comes in behind him, lit with 24 Mole-Richardson 1,500W Far Cycs (12 at the top and 12 at the bottom).

The most dramatic use of color in this production is in Act III, when smoke and fire effects come up from a trap below the stage, and the men's chorus dances around the opening. The scrollers are all in red and orange, with Lee 179 (Chrome Orange) adding yellow accents on the chorus and the ribs of the portals.

FIDELIO'S INDUSTRIAL APPROACH

Schuler took quite a different approach in lighting Beethoven's only complete opera, Fidelio, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Robert Israel's Act I set was industrial in nature, with prison cells opening onto an interior courtyard with large roll-up doors and an old railroad gantry. “The intention in the lighting was to use as many industrial sources and practicals as possible,” notes Schuler.

In the second act dungeon scene, the stage is almost completely dark, with just three 9V compact fluorescents casting shadows on the set, creating a moment the LD found “very effective.” He also converted actual industrial fixtures by changing the lamps. “I was worried about the glare but the shapes were right, so we kept the housings and used cool 15W compact fluorescent lamps. They looked right and were believable as floodlights.”

Other fixtures were converted to use 250W mercury vapor for the colder light of a blue-green discharge lamp, which offered the right intensity and color temperature for the mood of the opera. Tony Giovannetti and Dana Gracey of the Met's electrics department found some of the unusual sources and handled the fixture conversions.

A CHANGE FOR SCHULER

As part of his busy design schedule, Schuler remains the principal guest designer at the Chicago Lyric. What does the change in title mean? “I don't oversee the rep plot or relight the productions,” he explains, noting that Chris Binder has replaced him in the role of resident lighting director, a position that may be going the way of the rep plot, in Schuler's opinion. “Resident designers seem to be a thing of the past at the major opera houses,” he adds, pointing out that “Gil Wechsler left the Met, I left Chicago, and Tom Munn has remained resident lighting designer but is no longer lighting director in San Francisco.”

For Schuler, part of the impetus to design fewer shows stems from a desire to “have more time to be involved in the design process and meet with the other designers early on.” A case in point is an upcoming production of Lucia di Lammermoor, with sets by Gupta Dipu, a young designer from Brooklyn. “We spent a lot of time developing what kinds of translucent materials would provide the proper light transmission.” For this, and other operas such as a new production of Luisa Miller with sets by Santo Loquasto, this kind of pre-planning is invaluable. “You know much more about it when you walk into the theatre,” says Schuler. “I find it more satisfying to get involved at this level.”

DUANE SCHULER OPERA PROJECTS
RIGOLETTO — LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO
7 ETC118 10° Source Fours
57 ETC 19° Source Fours
37 ETC 26° Source Fours
19 ETC 36° Source Fours
2 ETC 50° Source Fours
6 Arri106 5" 1kW fresnels
4 Arri 1,200W HMI PAR-64s
8 Strand119 8" 2kW fresnels
3 Strand 5kW fresnels
48 Assorted PAR-64 MFLs
24 Vari*Lite120 VL5Bs
5 Altman121 2.5kW HMI fresnels
24 Wybron122 Forerunner color scrollers
3 Wybron large-format color scrollers
4 “Hot Shot” strobes
4 Diversitronics123 Strobe Cannons
2 ETC Obsession II control consoles
THE FLYING DUTCHMAN — LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO
8 ETC 10° Source Fours
32 ETC 19° Source Fours
52 ETC 26° Source Fours
25 ETC 36° Source Fours
2 ETC 50° Source Fours
32 Altman 6×12 360Qs
15 Strand 8" 2kW fresnels
3 Strand 5kW fresnels
78 Assorted PAR-64 MFLs
10 Berkey124 1kW 4-cell far cycs
10 Mole-Richardson109 1,500W 2-cell far cycs
1 Arri 4kW HMI theatre fresnel
2 Pani125 1.2kW HMI projectors with 27cm lens with cloud discs
62 Wybron Forerunner color scrollers
24 Vari*Lite VL5Bs
2 ETC Obsession II control consoles
FIDELIO — METROPOLITAN OPERA
5 ETC 5° Source Fours
8 ETC 10° Source Fours
30 ETC 19° Source Fours
24 ETC 26° Source Fours
12 ETC 36° Source Fours
8 Selecon126 Pacific Zooms 12-28°
2 Robert Juliat127 Profile 2.5kW HMI Zooms 9-26° (with GAM128 696 Construction C templates)
26 Mole-Richardson 2k fresnels
15 Arri 4k HMI theatre fresnels
2 Arri 1,200W HMI PAR-64s
1 Pani BP6 Gold projector with 50cm lens
3 Pani BP4 Gold projector with 22cm lens
16 Wybron Forerunner color scrollers
22 Strand Iris 1,500W 4-cell cyclights
5 24" scoops converted to 15W compact fluorescents
21 15W compact fluorescents in hanging wire cages
3 Appleton Electric129 250W mercury vapor floodlights
5 Appleton Electric high-bay luminaires converted to 15W cool fluorescents
3 9V compact fluorescent set mounts
2 2' fluorescent light sticks
2 ETC Obsession II control consoles
Circle Number on Reader Service Card