La Boheme in Naples European opera productions by such organizations as Operama have featured cutting-edge technology for some time now. Yet it's only recently that significant inroads have been made by high tech audio and projection hardware in the core opera community, a group known for preferring a more traditional approach. One recent example of such a conversion is a production of Puccini's La Boheme, staged at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, which used video projections based on Texas Instruments' DLP technology.
Interestingly enough, it was the theatre itself that requested the use of video projections. Artistic director Carlo Mayer supported the idea of staging what is one of the more traditional operas using this type of multimedia production in order to attract younger audiences. Mietta Corli, co-director with Marina Bianchi, served as set designer and video director on the project. "I've been using video in opera for several years now," says Corli, "but the problems encountered when trying to implement high tech hardware in this field are twofold, although closely related. First, there is the cost factor, which means that normally only top venues are able to stage such events; and second, the fact that these theatres are also usually most tied to tradition."
In helping to break that tradition, the designer specified three Christie Digital Systems VistaGraphX projectors for Boheme: a Roadie 10000, supplied by Automa, and two 5000 units, brought in by Ideogamma. Sergio Metalli and the team from Ideogamma were also in change of the video setup at the theatre. Both companies are members of the Vista Rental Club.
According to Corli, the main technical hurdle in using such technology is finding a satisfactory way of using lighting and projections simultaneously without sacrificing either. Unlike experimental or traditional theatre, opera, at least in Europe, requires quite high levels of brightness; video, of course, requires the opposite. "The ideal situation," adds the designer, "is to create zones for projection which are in relative darkness and overlap as little as possible with the suitably lit areas in which the action takes place. When these spaces can be kept distinct, tulle can be used as a screen."
In Boheme, this was employed to great effect at the beginning of the first act. The opera begins with a freeze-frame of the town square projected on tulle covering the whole proscenium. As the orchestra begins playing, this first tulle rises, revealing a second tulle with black polyurethane backing, on which the action in the video recording of the square begins, zooming gradually in on the window of the room in the first scene.
In those instances where live scenes are projected, Corli says, the level of illumination necessary for the cameras means using a fabric that favors optimum image viewing. In Act Two, for instance, the scene is set in the Latin Quarter: As Rodolfo and Mimi make their way through the crowd, the facades of two of the houses - in reality 19.5' x 18' and 12' x 27' Polacoat rear-projection fabric areas covered with gray painted gobelin tulle - are used to project closeups of individual members of the chorus shot by three Sony DXC 30 digital cameras in the wings. The signals are fed to the video control room set up in the royal box. The 10000 was installed there as well, as was a Sony DFS 500P video switcher and two 5000 units moved about backstage according to rear-projection requirements.
Another very effective part of the video team's contribution to the opera consists of Betacam PVW 2800/UVW 1600 VTR recordings of the performers edited on Ideogamma's Avid Media Composer 9000. Scenes of the lovers' first meeting were prerecorded and then projected as a flashback onto an enormous skylight/window (60' x 30' Peroni panorama fume fabric) on the ceiling of the attic where Mimi remembers her happier moments as the tragic end approaches.
On the technical side of the production, Metalli says, the challenges were much like any video project. "The quality of the Christie machines' DLP technology, the fantastic color reproduction, and the excellent contrast ratio enabled us to project even onto black tulle with remarkable visual impact," he explains. "The projectors' optics are interchangeable, so we had no problems as far as throw was concerned - the 1.5-2.5:1 zoom lens was perfect.
"Other difficulties we met were mainly of a logistic nature," he adds. "Old theatres are often under the protection of the State Monument and Fine Arts Service, so hardware, cables, etc. must be organized to avoid the slightest risk of damaging valuable stucco. Our cable runs from the royal box had to be covered by special soft rubber."
More challenging, Metalli notes, was having to play the role of new kid on the opera block. "Because video is the newcomer, apart from full and dress rehearsals when everybody's involved, the video checks are the last to be done, which often means running through cues at four or five in the morning," he explains. "Our projectors are on special trolleys and moved between acts, but as none of the theatre or production staff are authorized to move them, we had to do everything ourselves or hire temporary labor. However, no doubt over time the numerous small problems associated with the actual newness of the video medium will be ironed out."
Corli says that video projections have now become a legitimate part of her design palette. "If the opera in question includes visionary situations and is therefore suited to the use of video, I'll propose it," the designer says. "Puccini uses flashbacks on La Boheme, so it is ideal for this production. Although multimedia content isn't an indispensable component of my work, I always take advantage of any opportunity to use it. I'm very enthusiastic about this type of language."