There's a new look to the lighting at New York City Opera, with a new repertory plot in place for some pretty startling productions. For Verdi's Macbeth, lighting designer Robert Wierzel uses acid yellow to portray a sense of corruption and evil in a post-industrial nightmare on a steel set. For a hyper-contemporary interpretation of Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers, LD Mark McCullough added a 2.5kW HMI on the floor and 5kW fresnels on stands to compensate for a set with ceilings that blocked the possibility of overhead light.
McCullough originally designed Italian Girl in Algiers for the 1997 Festival Season at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY. "It was harder to do at City Opera within their repertory schedule," he points out. "There are fewer changeovers at Glimmerglass, so we worked out a lot of the problems there."
Directed by Christopher Alden, with sets by Carol Bailey and John Conklin and costumes by Gabriel Berry, with overtones of Middle Eastern politics, Italian Girl opens with a golden palm tree and a pile of gold bricks stage right. "These are icons for the wealth and power of Saddam Hussein," says McCullough, who used a golden amber (Lee 104) to light the palm fronds with twelve ETC Source Four ellipsoidals. Several of these are placed in the orchestra pit and focused up to bathe the fronds from below. The palm changes to green and magenta, as the tree is a symbol for what is happening on stage.
"The ceilings on the set posed a huge challenge," he continues. To add extra light, he placed one Arri compact 2.5kW HMI with a Wybron Coloram scroller and dimming shutter on the floor downstage left, two 5kW Strand Bambino tungsten fresnels with Coloram scrollers, one on each side, just upstage of the proscenium arch, and two additional Strand Bambinos on rolling stands. "The focus has to be exact," says McCullough. "The lights on stands move with every scene change. This compensated for not using much of the rep plot."
The bright yellow set, divided into three moving sections, is first seen as a bedroom with very little overhead light, except for a few specials and some high crosslight. To flood the room with bright pink (Lee 128), McCullough used the HMI and 5kW fresnels on the floor. "I needed a lot of light to fill the space and make it not look choppy," he says. "The first image has a lot of color."
In later scenes the set is turned to reveal a black glossy exterior studded with Mylar spikes. "The Mylar really picked up the light and the spikes added a very threatening feeling, as if you could be impaled," says McCullough. To highlight the textures of the set, he used purple (Lee 181) and green (Rosco 90) crosslight in ETC 19-degree Source Four ellipsoidals up in the projection booth.
To fill a negative space under the set platforms, McCullough used 8' cool white fluorescent tubes with green gel (R90) wrapped around them. The green is typical of his bold, saturated colors. Control is provided by an ETC Obsession console, with John Healy as operator.
In Macbeth, director Leon Major and set/costume designer John Conklin collaborated with lighting designer Robert Wierzel to give Shakespeare a modern voice. Staged on a cold set of brushed, stainless steel with rivets, the opera emphasizes a story of cold-hearted corruption. "The light is dark, both emotionally and physically," says Wierzel. "There is a harshness to the light with very high contrast and very acidic colors. It is not lush but almost painful. The acid yellow conveys a sense of inner corruption."
Dimmable fluorescent tubes provided by Production Arts (which also provides much of the specialized lighting equipment for these productions) are used in the apparition scene. Fluorescents with yellow (R312) wrapping also appear on the floor under the set and in the trussing below the decks of the set. "The fluorescents are like modern technology gone awry," says Wierzel, who also used T3 striplights with double-ended 1,000W lamps and J-reflectors as ground row units. Placed upstage and pointing downstage through a white plastic translucent material, these create silhouettes on a black curtain as Duncan enters. "There is an eerie, ominous moment in the music, and this is echoed in the lighting. The translucency bounces the light as if through frosted glass," Wierzel points out.
Bold slashes of light from ETC Source Fours cut across the stage, with the majority of the backlight coming from a 2.5kW Robert Juliat HMI whose scroller has a variety of acidic colors including R312, R88, L197, L161, R26, and clear white. Wierzel also used cool white (R362 and L162) in Source Four sidelights in shin and low boom positions. Metal poles in the battle scene are lit with harsh yellow (R312) in such a way that they look like neon tubes in an otherwise dark environment. Dimmable fluorescent fixtures (four 4' [1.2m] sections of 75W cool white) custom designed by Production Arts are used as footlights.
"City Opera now has directors and designers working in a new way," says Wierzel. "John Conklin (director of production for New York City Opera) is truly a thinker and a revolutionary. He is reinventing opera and making the form live again for new audiences."