Dancing its way through a 2004 summer tour, with stops at festivals in Buxton, Bath, and Norwich, the first-ever British production of Astor Piazzolla's rarely staged tango-opera, Maria De Buenos Aires, was directed by John Abulafia with decor by Isla Shaw and lighting by James Whiteside. The opera, which takes place in both the 1960s and the present, is set against the backdrop of the oppressive dictatorship in Argentina in a swirl of terror and tango, love and betrayal, good and evil.
“We only had one day for load-in at each theatre,” says Whiteside, who designed the lighting with an eye toward touring. His rig of roughly 120 instruments includes ballet booms and uses equipment primarily taken from the in-house inventory at each venue. “The only things we moved with us were three moving lights,” Whiteside adds, referring to three Martin Professional MAC600 automated luminaires used as specials for big dance numbers or to help accent the scenery, rather than for large color washes.
Sarah Gilmartin, who served as programmer as well as production electrician for the tour, was charged with relighting the opera along the way, although the LD showed up to help. “Just one day is such a short time. It seemed best to have all hands on deck,” Whiteside says. The decision to use a Strand 500 series console was a choice predicated by the fact that all three venues have Strand desks (a console Whiteside likes and is comfortable with in any case). “We were thinking in terms of not doing anything too complicated,” he says about the rig. “We knew the show would tour.”
The style of Whiteside's lighting was defined by the use of numerous video projections, another choice dictated by the touring nature of the production and limited time to load in a large set. Video designer Graham English created a series of still images, combining original artwork as well as photographs taken in Argentina. The images were projected onto a tall upstage wall with a doorway. This wall served as the main scenic element and projection surface.
“Projection was a given from the beginning,” says Whiteside. “The images provide a sense of time and place, such as an outdoor scene with cherry trees. There are also English translations, as the opera is sung in Spanish.” Two Barco G5 projectors, provided by the London office of XL Video, were rigged on the front of the balcony and fed by two laptops using PowerPoint software. The XL Video team included Malcolm Mellows and technician Kevin Parry.
Interestingly, while the technology used was indeed video, the projection was all still, rather than kinetic. “This was a conscious decision very early on. The images are more a series of still photographs that are telling a story,” Whiteside explains. “This is actually more powerful imagery. Combining live video and theatre is different from what we wanted to do. The idea was to keep the focus on the stage and not distract attention from the beautiful dancing that's going on.”
Knowing that projection was a major design element, Whiteside allowed the lighting to be driven by the look of the video and also react in response to the music. “We basically have an opera on a large, empty stage, as there is a lot of dance,” he points out. “I often used a large, single source to create large shadows.” An example of this is an image of the title character, Maria, projected on the upstage wall, with low, shin-buster light coming through an opening in the wall. “We got a nice surprise when the light created a beautiful shadow on Maria's face,” Whiteside says. “Sometimes, the best things come if you allow them to.”
Other than the MAC600s, the lighting rig includes primarily tungsten sources, including 2kW Fresnels that Whiteside used for diagonal backlight. “The dance scenes have a very clean look and are evenly lit,” he says. “There is just the backlight and some cross light, with followspots on the principals. When there is a bed or chair on stage, I pick it out with specials.” The MAC units are hung overhead, two of them near the corners of the upstage wall as backlights and the third at mid-stage center.
Whiteside's color palette for the opera was mostly cold white (Lee 201) or open white in the tungsten sources, which seems very warm in comparison. He also uses a strong, fiery red (Lee 019) that came in for the big tango numbers. “The first time we see Maria is a scene in a bar we call “the tango bar of the dead” with a lot of people who have disappeared under the dictatorship,” he explains. “There are a lot of individual dancers in this scene that don't really react to each other. Each is in a small pool of light.”
“Maria's entrance is the first time we used red in the show,” Whiteside notes. The red comes from a single, 2kW Fresnel, making a strong color statement in contrast to the white light used up to this point. “When Maria first comes in, she is dressed as a nun, so you aren't immediately aware who it is. As she takes off her habit and reveals her red dress, there is a projection of her face with a blood red tear on her cheek. The light paints the floor in red to match her dress and the tear.”
The use of projection also helped with the choice to use white light. “Other colors would combat the natural colors in the projections,” says Whiteside. In the second act, there is a scene where Maria appears as a ghost of herself, with a little pink in the MAC600s to add to the dreamlike quality. “This is absolutely not a moving lights show,” says Whiteside. “They move very subtly a few times to follow movement in the set, but basically, you do not see them move.”
The final scene in the opera has a look of its own, with the singers speaking directly to the audience. “It is almost Brechtian,” says Whiteside, who used strong white backlight as well as front light to separate the last scene from the look of the rest of the opera. “They are telling you the story of grandmothers who are looking for their grand-daughters who were taken away by the old regime and have not come home. This scene was added on,” Whiteside adds. “It was not in the original opera. The original story was different, more surreal.”
The combination of dance and opera lighting resulted from the designer's initial reaction to the set. “It is an open canvas and very clean,” says Whiteside. “I also wanted to keep the lighting clean. The chorus tells the story though dance with cross light, and there are followspots to pull focus to the principals who tell the story though speech. The style seemed right for the piece.”