Hoffmann on the Big Screen The Piedmont Opera Theatre gave a techno take to its production of The Tales of Hoffmann at the Stevens Center, its home base in Winston-Salem, NC, and the Valentine Theatre in Toledo this spring. The music stayed intact, but MTV-style imagery for the scenery was the lure for a younger demographic.
"Several years ago I saw a music video by Sting," Mary Robert, the organization's general director, told an interviewer, "and I thought, `This is incredible!' All of these wonderful images evolved, changed and morphed, creating a whole subtext to this rock song. Wouldn't it be fabulous if we could do that in live theatre?"
Robert asked Ohio-based director Ken Cazan and designer Franco Colavecchia, who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, to apply her inspiration to Offenbach's opera. They collaborated with cinematographer Robert Collins, also an NCSA faculty member, to project an abstract video montage on an enveloping scenic environment. During the three-hour performance, the video dissolved in and out in short bursts behind the singers.
Cazan wanted a futuristic, science-fiction look. "There's a lot of surrealism in the piece," he says, adding, "It jumps back and forth in time." The video images suggest Hoffmann's psychosexual stream of consciousness as he tells his tales of loving and losing women.
The director devised a scenario of images for key moments. From that Colavecchia painted some 40 storyboards to guide an eight-day shoot in August 1999. Tight arrangements of props and furniture - a leopard-skin sofa for Olympia, for example - were set up in a studio against black velour.
Colavecchia, who worked with Josef Svoboda in Prague in 1968, says, "When someone mentions slides or projections to me, I automatically go to white. I didn't worry too much about the scenery, because I knew it would be one big white boxlike structure. I sketched that out very quickly." To give it structural interest, he gridded all the surfaces and sloped giant pilasters around doors.
To further break up the flat screens, Colavecchia constructed the back wall of four panels that slid open in different configurations. Beyond was platforming backed by a white cyclorama. "If you opened the panels," he says, "the film hit a panel and the cyclorama at the same time. You can fragment your film."
The key issue for Cazan and Collins was cueing the video to the music and the stage action. "We edited to a CD of the opera to get the timings as accurately as we could," Collins says. "Of course, with a live orchestra it's apt to drift. We made breaks often or we would run an image long so the orchestra could finish and we could dump the rest of the video."
To achieve the precision they needed, Collins transferred the finished video to three DVDs. "With disks, if we were running behind, we could immediately jump to the next cue instantly. In a tape you couldn't do that. The DVDs ran through a mixer, so Dan Rossi, our video coordinator, was able to play one section while he was looking ahead to find another section, set it up, and start it properly."
"Originally I wanted to build a set made of rear-projection screens," Colavecchia says. "Not only was it very expensive, I would have had to push the set so far downstage there would be no room for 35 people." The solution was to position three Sanyo PLC-XF10 Multi-Media Projectors in the audience area, one suspended from the balcony, and two on the sides. Rossi used a Videonics mixer and Proscan DVD players.
For budget reasons, the projection surface was painted canvas on plywood. It was, according to lighting designer Norman Coates, "really white, the whitest white you can buy at the paint store. It wasn't matte, it was a semi-gloss, and it did have a reflective quality to it. I looked at it as a challenge."
Coates, also on the NCASA faculty, had to illuminate the actors and separate them from the background without washing out the projections. He had to keep the screens alive when the video was not running. He also had to match the color of the video images as they faded in and out. "When we talked about the ideas," Coates says, "it became obvious that I had to walk gently to get it all tied together. The director isn't fond of followspots. But in this instance, I convinced him that we absolutely needed them, so we could control light and give the singer a focal point." From there the designer spent a lot of time matching color washes to video backgrounds. He used light to fuzz the edges so the projections didn't look like squares on the scenery.
"The piece of equipment that really saved me on the show was color scrollers," Coates says. "I used a Wybron CXI color scroller. They have two sheets of color that are rainbows. You can move either the front sheet or the back sheet and create a thousand colors. A standard color scroller lets you choose somewhere between 11 and 44 colors. All the dead-on front washlights and the downlight washlights had them."
The opera's surreal style let Coates use the floor as a significant position from which to light actors without killing background washes or video. He embedded some 30 lights in the deck under cutouts with black gratings.
For general illumination, the designer had two options. "I could either bounce the light onto the walls, which would ruin the environment, or I could let some of the light bounce out in the audience. I chose back angles as much as possible, allowing the followspots to do the work of visibility. The house would be brighter than one would like it, but I think it would be less obtrusive."
Besides DVD, the production used live video when Spalanzani introduces Olympia. "We had a young man with a camera in the crowd, who were dressed in very high couture like a fashion show," Colavecchia says. "To have the live camera hitting the cast and then projected onto the set, plus Olympia in black leather, kind of kinky - that was very exciting."