Nigel Levings — LD, music lover, vintner — returns to Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème

A full-blown opera — sung in Italian — on Broadway? And not just any opera, but a knockout production of Puccini's beloved La Bohème, directed by Baz Luhrmann, with production design by Catherine Martin (or CM as she is known to her collaborators), costumes by Martin and Angus Strathie, sound design by Acme Sound Partners, and lighting by Nigel Levings. Having opened in December, La Bohème has quickly become one of Broadway's most talked-about hits. Its bold production design, sexy young cast, reduced orchestra, and use of vocal amplification have caused plenty of comment, especially from outraged traditionalists. But this La Bohème is an exercise in opera as popular entertainment, and audiences are coming in droves. It's also a welcome return to the New York stage for Levings, whose only previous Broadway assignment, the 1996 revival of The King and I, earned him a Tony nomination.

Luhrmann, of course, is pop culture's man of the moment, thanks to a string of films that include Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet (with Leonardo DiCaprio), and the Academy Award-winning Moulin Rouge. There's a certain similarity in the design vernacular of the latter film and La Bohème — both celebrate the lives and loves of starving artists in stylized versions of Paris — but the opera production came first, in 1990, as staged by the Australian Opera at Sydney Opera House, lit by Levings.

“Everyone thought it would be booed off the stage in Sydney,” says Levings, recalling the production's premiere. “We weren't sure people would like the exposed staging, the time shift to the 1950s, and the young cast. We had such an emotional involvement in the piece, we wondered if the audience would feel the same way.” He adds that, on opening night, as the opera ends and Rodolfo realizes that Mimi has died, you could hear him sobbing in the darkness. “The lights faded to black and there was absolute silence. Then the audience erupted in applause. It was a huge hit.”

A dozen years later, with Luhrmann's career in full gear, and Martin the possessor of two Oscars for Moulin Rouge, the production was reconceived for Broadway, after a tryout at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. “When we met about a New York production of La Bohème, the idea was to do it exactly the same,” says Levings, “but there are certain expectations on Broadway so we knew some things would have to be developed differently. On Day One in San Francisco, the light plot from the Australian Opera was loaded into the Wholehog and we modified it from there.” One big difference between the Sydney and New York versions: There are four to five times as many cues in the Broadway show. The second difference is the addition of moving lights. “There were none used in Sydney,” says the designer, noting that the original plot was devised to fit within the Sydney Opera House rep plot. “I can still see remnants of that plot in the Broadway rig,” he adds.

The scenery also evolved, with the addition of “vistas,” or backdrops, behind the scenic elements. “They were more skeletal in the original version,” says Levings. “This was an exercise in lighting, with a combination of flat and 3D scenery, and sometimes as little as 3" of space for the lights.” The Paris backdrops were a challenge, he says: “I had to pick objects out of each drop to light.” To do so, he used a general wash to light the backdrop with specials, including carefully framed fixtures that fly in on “goal posts,” to light windows, signs, and various objects.

Exposed theatricality

At the top of La Bohème, the audience sees an open stage; at center is a large wagon covered with a sheet. Worklights are on and stagehands dressed in 1950s costumes are onstage. “We wanted to simply say you are in a theatre and to show all the elements that will be used to tell the story,” says Levings. “You see the stagehands move lights and scenery into position. When the music starts, we go from worklights to stage lighting.”

The first act takes place in a cold Paris garret where Rodolfo, a poet, is trying to write; Mimi enters, looking for a match to relight her candle. “The lighting is cold, too,” says Levings, who used a combination of Lee 197 [Alice Blue] in the backlight and L201 [full CT Blue] in the sidelight. “The rig is pretty much black and white, like CM's monochrome scenery,” he adds. One bit of color comes from the firelight in a corner stove when Rodolfo burns a manuscript. “The firelight is a very old trick,” admits the LD. “I learned it in 1966 at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. We chopped up Cinemoid gels 4 and 11 to make the fire. Today you use L104 [Deep Amber] and L111 [Dark Pink].” The gels are in MR-16 birdies held by stagehands at the corner of the scenery wagon.

Additional birdies are used to light hard-to-reach places, and as miniature followspots, with L201 to illuminate the faces of Mimi and Rodolfo in their Act One love duet. “I have used this scene as a teaching exercise for students,” says Levings. “It takes place in candlelight, but the candles go out. It is supposed to be so dark that they can't find the key when Mimi drops it. But the audience has to see Rodolfo pick up the key.” To solve this problem, Levings decreases the ambient light level. “I also use breakup gobos to put streaks of light across the stage to pick up the singers' eyes,” he explains. The birdie followspots pick the singers out of the darkness. At the end of the act, the scenic wagon “pans around like a camera,” and Mimi and Rodolfo step out onto the Parisian rooftop and stand against a giant sign that says “L'Amour.” The sign is lit in red. “Rosco 27 [Medium Red],” says Levings. “My favorite red. The only real red.”

At this point, the intensity of the light on the Parisian backdrop decreases. “It's like a zoom, in a sense,” explains Levings. “The periphery fades away until you are just left with the L'Amour sign lit, with some twinkling stars. The stars are crystals on black cotton with light shining on them,” says Levings. “We like simple solutions.”

The coldness of Act One fades away in Act Two, set on a busy street on the Left Bank and at Café Momus, located beneath Rodolfo's garret. “It's as if this street is the most wonderful place in Paris. There is so much life,” says Levings. So much that the designer used the lighting to help focus the audience's attention. “You could see the show 10 times and not see all that's going on,” he adds. In addition, there are little vignettes in the side boxes at stage right and stage left. “The critical thing was finding the right balance and level of visibility for these scenes,” says Levings. For clarity and to help tell the story, the lighting has a very tight focus, and a clear stage picture for each cue. “Visibility is fundamental,” he adds.

At the top of Act Two, the stage seems to come alive with warmth and color, an effect that is something of an illusion, says Levings. Pointing out that the scenery and most of the costumes are still solidly in Martin's monochrome palette, he adds, “The lighting palette is very restricted, so a shift from L201 to no color seems like a huge jump. I also worked the color temperature palette so that we could use those nice warm tones of low-level incandescent light. The opening image of the street is built from very cold backlight and no-color uplight, so the street space and architecture are cold, but the faces are warm. The addition of festoon lights [over the stage, extending out into the house], at low levels, gives an overall sense of warmth and color without compromising the restricted color palette.

“There is also the odd bit of L204 [full CT orange] pushing into corners of the café,” Levings continues. “In the street, to contrast the café, there is my favorite blue three-quarter backlight, R78 [Trudy Blue], a nice cold blue with no green and enough red in it to hold the color of Musetta's red dress. This cold backlight in the street itself makes the warmth of Café Momus seem much stronger. We were careful to maintain the color temperature range in the signs that appear on every truck. In some cases, we had to correct their color temperature, as the appropriate intensity makes them too warm, so we added L202 or L201. The only color in the signs is the same L'Amour sign we use in Act One, but it is now flown above the street upstage right.”

Act Three takes place at the Franco-Belgian border on a cold, snowy morning just before dawn. “The lighting is very cold again,” says Levings. There is a bit more color, however, with a deep blue, L195 Zenith Blue, in a set of PAR cans hung overhead. “In Australia there is 240V power and we use a lot of 2kW fresnels,” explains the designer, adding, “They just don't cut it in terms of the intensity of the light on the 110V in the States.” As a result, the fresnels were replaced with ETC Source Four PARs. “Ideally you need five of them together to cut through the other light like one 2kW fresnel,” says the LD, “but we only had room for four on some of the electrics bars.”

Act Four returns to Rodolfo's garret, where it is now spring, with bright sunlight that turns harsher as Mimi dies. “The spring sun is now pounding so harshly through the windows that Rodolfo puts up a curtain to shield her as she quietly dies,” says Levings.

The show was programmed on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console by moving light programmer Hilary Knox, with Vivien Leone serving as associate lighting designer and Doreen Tighe and Dale Knoth assisting. Conventional lighting equipment was provided by Fourth Phase, with moving lights provided by Bytecraft Entertainment (based in Australia). Scharff Weisberg in New York City provided two High End Systems Catalyst video systems (along with two Christie L8 projectors and two Barco 6300 projectors) used to project English supertitles onto various scenic elements in each act.

Speaking of the moving lights, as well as the rig's few scrollers, Levings said that silence was of primary importance. “Opera is an auditory experience,” says Levings. “Fan noise was not acceptable.” Automated gear includes High End Systems Studio Spots® hung overhead to supplement the conventional rig, adding textures and getting light into tight areas onstage. High End Systems Studio Colors® are used as a toplight wash. “I was able to contract and expand the wash, and pull into tight islands of reality,” he says. Levings also used incandescent Vari*Lite® VL1000 fixtures with shutters for flat sidelight; the units were hung in the auditorium, on the proscenium, and on the tormentor.

Throughout the production, lighting is a key part of the production's fast pace. “We always talked about the lighting in filmic terms, with closeups, tracking shots, and zooms,” Levings explains. “The lighting follows the scenic zooms by refocusing the moving lights and in following the changes in the music which serve as cues for the scenic dissolves and zooms.” He is so tuned into the music that he may be one of the few lighting designers who sits with the score during rehearsals. “When Puccini writes those high-soaring emotional moments I try to take off there as well with the lighting, and lift the emotional state of the audience.”

Oz, Baz, and the quest for the perfect pinot

Born in England, the 53-year-old Levings moved to Australia at the age of two, when his family was part of a post-WWII migration program. (The boat fare was only è10!) While studying for a law degree, Levings paid for school by working in local theatres; ultimately, the theatre won out. He worked as an electrician in Melbourne in the early 1970s before going to England and New York on a travel grant from the Australia Council. “I worked with Theatre Projects briefly in London,” he recalls, “and with Jules Fisher in New York, interning, I guess you would say, when he was working on the original Broadway production of Chicago and a Rolling Stones tour.”

By then it was clear that Levings would be a lighting designer. “I returned to Australia and did freelance design projects,” he says. “Not that there was that much work around. There really weren't lighting designers then. The lighting was done by technical directors or electricians.” He was hired by the South Australian Theatre Company in Adelaide, making him the first full-time resident LD in Australia.

During the seven years he spent at the South Australia Theatre Company, Levings continued to freelance and started lighting opera as well as theatre. (He works frequently with such companies as Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Opera Australia, and Opera Queensland.) Enter Baz Luhrmann: “Baz and I were put together in 1988 by the Australian Opera Company when I was asked to design a modern opera he was doing called Lake Lost. It was set in a photographer's studio. CM did the scenery and Angus Strathie did the costumes. The studio was filled with water, there was rolling scenery, and even a car.”

Most recently Levings also collaborated with Luhrmann on a production of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in 1993, that was seen in Sydney as well as at the Edinburgh Festival. “There is a revival in the works,” he says. “Baz is absolutely fantastic, and my ideal director in a sense. It's an inspiration the way he works with his creative team. He is not prescriptive the way other directors can be. He allows you the time to develop your ideas, and also feeds you his ideas on how the design should be going. He has a 110% involvement in every production.”

In fact, when Luhrmann and Martin were working on the original production of La Bohème, they were living in a garret in an old sailor's home in The Rocks, a then-rundown neighborhood in Sydney, under the Harbour Bridge. “It was very much like Rodolfo's garret in the opera,” notes Levings. “You'd go there and it was like being in La Bohème.”

Levings still lives in Adelaide, up in the hills about 45 minutes from the city. He has a small vineyard, and refers to the area as “one of the top wine-growing districts in Australia.” With 500 closely planted vines, he produces his own pinot noir. “I planted vines when I bought my property in 1986,” he says. “I asked somebody I knew in the industry what to do and he told me to plant what I like to drink! So it's a quest for the Holy Grail — the perfect pinot.”

The output of Levings' vines fluctuates a great deal. “We hope to eventually stabilize around 30 cases per year,” he says. “The best year so far has been 20 dozen. All handmade — pruned, picked, and made by these hands — and feet, for that matter. I have done a few foot-crush vintages and it works fine for my volume but a friend's crusher/destemmer is easier, although it takes five minutes to run my grapes through it and then three hours to clean the machine afterwards!”

Nevertheless, don't expect him to desert the stage for the vineyard any time soon. “I love doing opera,” says Levings. “Theatre is so collaborative, especially opera, and there is nothing quite so enthralling or uplifting as an art form when you really get it right. For a lighting designer, it's so fantastic to have the musical structure to work with.”

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.

La Bohème

Lighting Equipment

12 ETC 10° Source Four 575W
119 ETC 19° Source Four 575W
8 ETC 19° Source Four 750W
70 ETC 26° Source Four 575W
5 ETC 26° Source Four 750W
38 ETC 36° Source Four 575W
55 ETC 50° Source Four 575W
14 Altman 500W 3.5Q 5s
8 Altman 500W 3.5Q 10s
53 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 575W
36 ETC Source Four PAR NSP 575W
79 ETC Source Four PAR VNSP 575W
1 500W 6" fresnel
2 750W 6" fresnels
14 Strand Mizar 500W fresnels
1 1kW scoop
30 300W Mini-10s
33 500W Mini-10s
9 Strand Codas
6 PAR-64 VNSP striplights
16 L&E Broad Cycs
25 L&E Mini-Strips
20 Altman Micro Ellipse EYC 75W
2 Birdie short-nose MR-16 BAB 20W
52 Birdie MR-16 EXN 50W
8 Birdie short-nose MR-16 EXN 50W
5 Birdie MR-16 EYC 75W
7 Birdie short-nose MR-16 EYC 75W
24 Birdie MR-16 EYF 75W
6 Vari*Lite VL1000TS
4 High End Systems Studio Spot CMY 13° 575W
8 High End Studio Spot CMY 18° 575W
24 High End Studio Color 575W
1 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II Console
2 Lycian 1290 xenon 2kW followspots
7 Wybron Coloram scrollers
3 DHA Gobo Rotators
2 DHA Effects Wheels
1 Mole-Richardson 18" fan
2 Bowen fans
2 MDG Atmospheres
1 MDG 3000
2 Rosco 1600s
2 LeMaitre OptiMist foggers
3 confetti cannons