Last August, Seattle Opera embarked on a double gamble, with a new opera house and a new production of Parsifal, Richard Wagner's final and complex opera, opening at the same time. While the new Marion Olivier McCaw Hall (see page 26) had been acclaimed by patrons at a gala in June, it had not yet been tested for opera. And what an opera with which to open the house!
“It is rarely produced outside of the composer's own home of Bayreuth, and when it is, it invariably draws top artists and more than its share of controversy,” says Bob Bonniol of Seattle's Mode Studios, who, with his wife Colleen, designed the production's projections (for complete details on the design and technical aspects of the Bonniols' projection design, see their column on page 34). “With an explicit mission to produce the Wagnerian repertoire, Seattle Opera has waited until this moment to present the Holy Grail, and what an opportune time.”
The Holy Grail to which Bonniol refers is the heart of Parsifal: a group of knights guard the sacred vessel that collected the blood of Jesus Christ. Their leader Amfortas suffers from a wound in his side that will not heal; it was inflicted by their enemy, the sorcerer Klingsor, who castrated himself after being refused entry to the brotherhood of the knights. Klingsor stabbed Amfortas with the spear that had once pierced the side of Jesus; the wound can only be healed by an innocent youth who shows compassion. Enter Parsifal. Is he the redeeming youth?
As the story progresses, Klingsor conjures flower maidens to distract the knights and sends Kundry, a woman under his evil spell, to seduce Parsifal. The youth resists, regains the holy spear in a battle with Klingsor, and, after a long journey, returns to the knights to heal Amfortas. Parsifal is hailed as the new leader of the knights.
Acclaimed by critics and audience alike, Parsifal was directed by François Rochaix, with sets and costumes by Robert Israel (the two had collaborated on Seattle Opera's 1980's Ring Cycle as well), and lighting by Michael Chybowski. “I knew the music,” says Israel, noting that this is also his first Parsifal. “I wasn't looking for a specific style. The spaces are a simple reduction of both nature and man-made objects, meant to condense the whole thing to a stage.”
Israel's “reduction” translates to a series of abstract, geometric shapes that create a cold, forlorn landscape. “It is not a specific place,” he says. “It's a stage where they are acting out an opera.” The geometric planes include a 35'-wide raked-stage platform that weighs 18,000 lbs. and raises silently like a drawbridge to a fully vertical position and a 77'-tall tower, half of which rises hydraulically from the trap room while the top half rolls on from offstage. The entire tower then collapses dramatically back into the trap room.
As the stage deck rises, it creates the Grail Room where the knights appear, ascending a staircase located below the stage. “This responds to a line in the libretto, “time becomes space,” and represents an inexplicable change in the world,” says Israel, whose color palette for the production is restrained. “I wanted there to be a sense of cold and foreboding about the land they inhabit, and of astringent poverty,” he says.
Yet, says Israel, there is a contrast between the knight's hardscrabble environment in Acts I and III and Klingsor's lush world, referred to in the libretto as “the other side of the mountain.” He describes Act II as having a more seductive atmosphere, fuller and riper, with bright colors and a green garden. “Klingsor's tower,” notes the designer, “is like an erection, from a psychological point of view: Klingsor's replacement for the fact that he's been castrated. The final insult is that the tower collapses and his impotence is revealed. The whole story is full of sexual references.”
Designed as a narrow staircase, this phallic tower is decorated with charts of Klingsor's scientific experiments about DNA and genetic alteration, as well as pictures of Judas' kiss and the stabbing of Christ. “These are images from paintings,” says Israel. “Blood is an important image in the opera.”
Israel's color palette for the costumes is also restrained. “The knights are poverty-stricken, so there is a reduction in color,” he says. “They are a poor fundamentalist group so there is an aged quality to their clothes. They wander in nature and can't spruce themselves up.” Their costumes are primarily constructed of cotton, linen, and wool, with a lot of layering, as well as distressing and dyeing of the fabrics. “This was not a hard show to shop, as there are only a few different fabrics,” says the designer, who adds that the costumes as well as the sets were built in Seattle Opera's own shops.
Parsifal is dressed differently. “He comes from someplace else and is their possible savior, yet in the beginning he wears animal furs and leather, exactly what's abhorrent to the knights,” says Israel. “The knights are vegetarians and don't kill animals.” When Parsifal returns at the end, he appears as a mysterious black knight who reveals himself while bringing the sacred spear and the Holy Grail together in peace. “The Grail is not specified exactly,” notes Israel, who opted for a symbolic white container that glows in magical light. “This is the focus of the story, but I don't think of it in a realistic way,” he adds. The only colorful outfits are work in Act II by Klingsor's flower maidens.
Additional color comes from the digital projections designed by the Bonniols. “Director of technical production Robert Schaub suggested we use projections for digital imagery that actually moved,” says Israel, who had initially envisioned a series of painted backdrops behind a scrim. “The projected images created a much more plastic, flexible space, and enlarged the vocabulary we already had,” he adds.
Lighting designer Michael Chybowski made his Seattle Opera debut with Parsifal, but is no stranger to projections. His career includes a ten-year collaboration with singer Laurie Anderson, who makes use of the technology in her stage productions. “The Parsifal projections started out with the idea of having a mysterious mountainous landscape coalesce out of a formless haze, a bit like having structure appear from the pictures that you see of the cosmic microwave background radiation,” Chybowski says. “The idea evolved somewhat, but in any case I had to be very careful in choosing angles because the projection screen was white, was very close to the set, and there was no scrim to cut down on the bounce from the forestage.”
Chybowski notes that it was important to “try to match the color temperature of the projections with the light filtering down from as high above as possible.” He also used ETC Source Fours for long sidelight to accentuate the width of the set. “This worked better from stage right, as stage left was cut off by the walls of the set,” he says. High sidelight from above added shadowy accents of white and Lee 200.
Chybowski's personal favorite on this show was the backlight, a mix of 5kW fixtures (Strand Bambinos and Arri Fresnels) on two overhead pipes for downstage, with AC Lighting's large-format Chroma Q M5 scrollers (rented from Christie Lites, with 16-frame custom gel strings), and 30 Strand Century 2kW Fresnels with Wybron Coloram II scrollers on an additional pipe as far upstage as possible.
“This was the fun part,” says Chybowski. “The scrolls were clear in the middle and went in small increments towards shadowy colors and blues in one direction, and towards light gold tints and full gold in the other. I could pick and choose, using the same set of backlights, and change color temperature with long crossfades,” he says. “In the first transition, I faded everything except the upstage pipe with the 30 2kW units. This pipe was raised behind a border on cue to create a moving shadow. The stage went almost dark as the shadow moved upstage and disappeared out of sight. It was like a quick little eclipse, seeing the shadow travel across the earth. You don't get a chance to do this very often.” With a trim height close to 52', Chybowski needed a lot of watts to create this effect.
When the stage deck rose to reveal the Grail Hall, Chybowski used shadowy sidelight from stage right on the knights as they arrived in the space, with Lee 204 in ETC Source Fours. Three Martin Mac 2000 Performance fixtures were used to stretch a line of red light that ran vertically in a slit on the underside of the deck as it becomes the wall of the Grail Hall. The red light emanating from the wall was created using 72 small JDR 75W lamps on 4” centers to create one 24'-long strip of light. The light bounced off a reflector (a flat surface painted a glossy red) inside the wall. “The Mac 2000 Performance units were laid over this slit, and focused to be just a little wider than it,” says Chybowski. “We wrote an effect to make the slit seem to ‘breathe’ slowly in red light.”
To illuminate Klingsor's tower, Chybowski lit it internally, showing off the structure of the staircases and landings, essentially lighting the interior by silhouetting the stairs and railings. A series of 40 Source Fours on a stage-left ladder lit the four levels within the tower in small increments, with separate sets of units for the landings, stairs, walls, and to highlight small parts of the set around light fixtures and the murals on the walls. There were also practicals on the tower walls to make it look even brighter, including A lamps in construction cages and a 24" Linestra incandescent linear lamp hung above a blackboard.
“The tower glowed from inside,” says Chybowski, who also used a variety of automated luminaires (purchased by the City of Seattle for McCaw Hall) including six Martin Mac 2000s, eight Martin Mac 2000 wash units, and three Martin Mac 2000 Performance fixtures with shutters. These were hung both overhead and on stage right ladders.
“They were primarily used for washes, with one moment in the second scene of Act I when Amfortas picks up the grail. The moving lights create a breathing, or sexual effect, in red,” says Connie Yun, assistant LD for Parsifal. “That's the most movement you see. There were also some color shifts in the moving lights, using a wide palette, dawn to nude.” The moving lights were programmed by Jon Smith on an MA Lighting grandMA 4,000-channel console networked into McCaw Hall's ETCNet, eventually triggering the grandMA via DMX signal from an ETC Obsession II.
Chybowksi points out that, “Each act had a different character.” He describes Act I as “a shadowless haze, with the light seeming to fall from as high and as far away as possible,” Act II as “a colorful, artificial world that is a total creation of Klingsor,” and Act III as “the natural order of things falling apart. There is more shadowy light, with a little more direction to it. It is more recognizable and not as mysterious as Act I.” Act II used high crosslight in what he calls “garish colors of a surreal world,” ranging from Lee 217 to Lee 343, with odd golds, off-greens, and dusty purples, as well as dark red and open white.
At the end, as a new order takes over, Parsifal seemingly takes the light from the Grail to himself. In fact, the lights on the Grail and on Parsifal are very bright. The Grail itself used one Arri 4kW HMI PAR in super spot arrangement (with the lens removed), a 4.5Þ unit that delivered 3,000fc at a 45' throw into an area 4' in diameter. Two of the Arri 4kW HMI PARS are used for Parsifal in the final moment. “At a 45' throw, that's almost 6,000fc on one person,” says Chybowski.
“I was very careful how I arranged the plot,” he adds. “Sidelight was the key thing. I needed to control the bounce and light the people, yet keep every stitch of light off the projection screen.” At the same time, he had to analyze the projections and create a 3D environment that included the singers and the projected images. “I would select a key element and then extend it forward into the set in some fashion so that the set and the background were knitted together,” he notes. “That's why the backlight units had the scrollers: to be able to change the color temperature of the light when the projections changed.”
Both Israel and Chybowski say this production was a positive experience. “It was one of the best collaborations I ever had,” says Chybowski. “It's rare when the entire organization is very positive.” Israel agrees, saying, “It was a wonderful place to work, and collaborating with Rochaix was a real treat. The whole experience was one of the best of my life. People were critical in the best way possible, and it made me evaluate and re-evaluate, and make my work better.”