In August 1977, Wayne Chouinard was hired at the Metropolitan Opera as assistant to resident LD Gil Wechsler. Twenty-three seasons later Chouinard is still there and has graduated into the role of resident lighting designer himself, although the title might be somewhat of a misnomer; he has only actually designed one production from scratch (the successful Fedora, whose sets were borrowed from Barcelona).
For the first 14 years Chouinard was at the Met, Wechsler designed the lighting for all of the productions. During the last five years of his tenure, Wechsler did only one show per year, while Chouinard assisted all of the outside designers that came into the house. "A lot of the directors and designers were pushing for their own lighting designers," says Chouinard, in explanation of the change in the system. "This allows for more stylistic diversity."
Chouinard's day-to-day responsibilities include making life as easy as possible for the outside designers, generating all the necessary paperwork, and negotiating the purchase of new equipment when needed. "I am a facilitator, especially for some of the European designers who don't really do light plots. They just conceptualize and want a little blue here or a little pink there."
Working with the outside LDs, Chouinard begins by telling them everything they can do and how he can help them make it happen. "With so many outside designers we get a wider mix of styles. It's a mixed approach design-wise, from traditional to contemporary, and I like that, as some pieces are better in a more traditional setting." Chouinard finds that some of the outside designers are overwhelmed at first by the size of the stage and the theatre. "This large of a venue is a challenge, but I teach them how to work in this scale."
When it comes to new equipment, the Met is on the conservative side. "We tend to lag behind, and new things are usually bought for a specific production," says Chouinard, who recently purchased almost half a million dollars of equipment (including quite a few Arri HMI fresnels) for a new production of Tristan und Isolde. "We understood that the lighting was part of the concept of the show, rather than a case where you build the set and then ask how are we going to light it."
Chouinard also recently updated the old carbon arc followspots that were purchased when the Metropolitan Opera house opened, replacing them with five 2kW Lycian 1290 XLTs with xenon lamps. "They are very good for our long throw of 150' (46m)," he explains. "They also have a nice mass and weight and don't bounce around. The operators like them and we get a lot of mileage out of them--they are on night and day."
The only moving lights in the house are six High End Systems Studio Colors(R) bought for Franco Zeffirelli's production of Carmen. "Their cost was amortized over two years," says Chouinard, who explains that sometimes new lights are first rented during the August tech period. "Then if they really work and the designer really likes them, we buy them."
As a student at Brandeis University, Chouinard first studied to be a math teacher, but once he got a job at the university theatre he found his true calling. "I discovered that calculus wasn't really for me, so I switched from teaching math to teaching theatre. I came to New York to get practical experience before my teaching career." But the idea of teaching fell by the wayside once Chouinard started working at the Met. "They call it the golden handcuff," he says. "Once you are here you can never leave."
That Chouinard hasn't left after all these years adds a nice touch of continuity to the Met's repertory system. "The outside designers don't usually come back when a production is brought back," he points out. "I'm responsible for modifying the lighting if there are changes in equipment or staging."
Chouinard is also responsible for lighting the Met's rare tours (to Japan once every few years) and its regularly scheduled live telecasts. "You used to just boost the lights for the cameras," he says. "Now it is more a matter of balance, as the cameras see more light than we do. Sometimes the singers are too bright and the scenery too dark, so the lighting is compressed to flatten things out for the camera yet stay as true as possible to the stage picture. This is one of the hardest things I do. You have to be discreet and adjust the lighting so that the live audience doesn't notice."
Overseeing the lighting for 27 different operas in a 32-week season, with two operas per day in rehearsal or performance, certainly keeps Chouinard busy. "I figured out years ago that I'm just not a freelance person," he comments about his longevity at the Met. "I like to know where I am working."
He also enjoys the problem-solving process of the repertory system. "There is a real satisfaction in seeing a production that looks right when you bring it back six years later," Chouinard notes. "My value to the Met is that I know the theatre and the people. That creates a continuity you can't buy. The crew also comes back year after year. That helps make it all work so well."