Light adds layers of emotion to Hotel Pro Forma's production of Operation: Orfeo, an intriguing investigation of contemporary art forms, which will be seen this month as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave/New Europe 99 festival. The BAM performances mark the New York debut for both Hotel Pro Forma, a site-specific theatre company based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and for lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug.
Minimalist in nature, Operation: Orfeo combines fragments of painting, sculpture, dance, and opera into a rich, contextual work based on the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Directed by Hotel Pro Forma's artistic director, Kirsten Dehlholm, this visual opera in three movements has a cast of 15 and is sung in Danish. It premiered in 1993 in Denmark and has since toured throughout Europe and Australia, including stops at the Sydney Opera House and at the Adelaide and Melbourne festivals. Following BAM, the next stop is in Austria next February.
Designed by Maja Ravn, the set for Operation: Orfeo is a large white staircase (painted with a tinge of yellow) that seemingly stretches to infinity and is framed like a painting. The small proscenium-like opening allows the staircase to serve as a blank canvas which is then bathed in light. "There are many different possibilities for the light," says Kongshaug, a freelance designer based in Copenhagen. "It moves from darkness to daylight, monochromatic to colorful, and from shadowless to the shadows of sidelight."
The light manipulates the look of the staircase, altering its appearance from a two-dimensional plane to three-dimensional depth, with various colors carving into this multilevel universe. The drama of the lighting is heightened during the first section of the piece, a full 20-minute period of darkness, representing Orfeo's descent into Hades.
During this time, the stairs are dark, the frame frontlit with ETC Source Four ellipsoidals. "The chorus is singing, and you can't really see anything but the frame," says Kongshaug. "The audience adjusts to the darkness."
During the second section the light has a monochromatic glow of saturated chromium yellow, created by a low-pressure sodium lamp that heats to full and accents the yellow nuance of the staircase. This is hung on the top center inside the frame.
In the third section, Kongshaug plays with shadows on the steps. "The light moves from no shadow to multiple shadows: That is the main aim in this part." The shadows are created by one large single source focused on the stairs--an Arri 2.5kW HMI fresnel in open white--along with lavender-tinted low-voltage striplights with halogen lamps and 1kW ellipsoidals with Lee 201 and 115 gel to create sidelight on the staircase.
"The striplights are hung on the inside of the frame and divided into sections that are used in various configurations," Kongshaug explains. "They provide light from the top, bottom, and sides to enhance the singers."
Lasers are added for a watery effect that envelops Orfeo in "waves." The lasers sweep across the audience as if skimming the surface of the ocean, then pull toward the ceiling as if the audience were sinking below the water.
Throughout, Kongshaug sculpts the staircase carefully. At certain moments, the light hits the curved risers, accenting the front of each step, as the rest of the stairs seem to disappear. His concern with the quality of light stems from his Scandinavian nature. "We have long winters with much darkness and we are inside. This is a time of memory, but the shorter, brighter summers are here and now," he says, noting that there is a long tradition of talking about light in Denmark.
Having worked as a photographer, then as master electrician, Kongshaug began his freelance career in 1991 with the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He designed the lighting for the Jyske Opera's Ring Cycle from 1993-1996 and created a 14km (9mi) interactive light installation stretching from the Avedore Power Plant to King's Square when Copenhagen was the European cultural capital in 1996.
His work with Hotel Pro Forma began in 1992 with a piece entitled Enigma of the Late Afternoon, which took place in an old museum in Copenhagen. "This had a very clean, architectural approach, which was very white with light coming from weird angles," says Kongshaug, who used 12V halogen lamps that were new to the market at the time.
In The House of the Double Axe, Kongshaug used Wybron's Autopilot to set up certain rules for the light. "We let the actors work within that framework and set the light. Each song is different," he says, pointing out that the singers stepped into strong, vertical beams of light created by Martin's PAL 1200 automated luminaires (controlled by Autopilot). A Hardware Xenon projector with a double scroller was used as an overhead light source, creating images of labyrinths on the stage and patterns on the performers.
"Each piece is carefully planned artistically, and the light is incorporated into the set, the room, and the entire production," Kongshaug says. "We set up the rules for the concept of the lighting and rent most of the equipment so we can decide what we want for each production." As Hotel Pro Forma does not have a permanent home, this has practical as well as artistic implications.
"The production process for each piece is like a spiral, which keeps moving upward as layers are added," he continues. "There is not really a day for the programming of the lights. This takes place continuously and the lighting takes place earlier in the process than usual." This makes the light as intrinsic to Operation: Orfeo as it is to Hotel Pro Forma's other works, which are at the same time site-specific and built to tour.
Enigma of the Late Afternoon, for example, is visually inspired by the work of 20th-century Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Along with American painter Edward Hopper, de Chirico serves as a muse for Kongshaug. "These are painters who intentionally manipulate light and the rules of light that would normally apply," he says, explaining his interest in their work. "People can see this is a conscious choice and not an accident."
Kongshaug uses the minimalist approach of Hotel Pro Forma for his own manipulations of light. During Monkey Business Class, created in 1996 (in collaboration with the Japanese performance company Dumb Type and American visual artists/architects Diller + Scofifio), he used Pani projectors to project a grid of faint thin lines onto the bodies of the actors. "There is no other light, just the projections," he explains. "Eventually you realize that the actors are naked. There is a feeling of vulnerability and togetherness."
In Navigare, a half-hour piece created for the opening of a new modern art museum south of Copenhagen, the cast includes 50 male rowers from the Faeroe Islands (Danish islands near Greenland). Each sits behind a Plexiglas oar that Kongshaug lit from the inside with a low-voltage lamp.
"Each rower was asked to bring a photograph of personal importance," he explains. "These are projected onto the walls from a small slide projector on each rower's back. As the rowers move, the images move as well. The performance was timed so that the daylight would fade and the building's architectural lighting would come on." A laser beam slicing across the oars adds the effect of water droplets on the wall.
Combining such diverse sources as neon, fluorescent, HMI, low-voltage halogen, and strobes, Kongshaug strives to create "conceptual lighting with the magic of illusion," yet keep it simple. "That is the challenge," he says. "I am interested in the interface of the lighting equipment with the needs of each production."