HEATHER CARSON EXPLAINS HER CONTROVERSIAL APPROACH TO LIGHTING OPERA

The Rape of Lucretia is a rule-breaker. Most operas accommodate big, active-voice emotions--passion, rage, longing, bloodlust--but in this work composer Benjamin Britten offers a cry of despair, using a tragedy from Roman history to explore his darkest fears about human nature. It is a violent, ugly story told in a restrained, classical manner. It is gripping in a way that many other, more bloodstained, operas are not.

Heather Carson is a rule-breaker as well. The correct approach to stage lighting, we are told, is a tasteful blend of colors and patterns that create beautiful stage pictures and highlight the performers' faces. Instead, Carson's lighting grapples with the architecture, creating an environment in which the onstage action is captured. Paradoxically, the results are theatrically powerful.

That's why Carson was the perfect LD for The Rape of Lucretia, seen this past summer at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY. Glimmerglass is well-known for presenting challenging productions of non-standard operas; this season's repertory included L'Etoile by Emmanuel Chabrier and Agrippina by Handel. But the talk of the season was Lucretia, which, in Christopher Alden's production, had the impact of a hard slap in the face. Carson's lighting is every bit as tough-minded, using sharp changes in color temperature, looming shadows, and feverish spikes of intensity to create a world in which the brutal exercise of male power results in the casual destruction of a woman's soul.

Written in 1946, The Rape of Lucretia is a classic tale told in classic terms. There is a two-person chorus commenting on the action--what action there is, since many events happen offstage and are described after the fact. But director Christopher Alden's production is notably modern in feel. Alden's conception is based on Britten's post-war state of mind: The composer, a pacifist, worried that England, having won World War II, had lost its soul. Thus the Male and Female Chorus spend their time agonizing about the weakness of Christianity in the face of evil--even though the opera takes place years before the birth of Christ. Alden ties all these ideas together by placing the characters in 20th-century clothing, turning the Male and Female Chorus into a dowdy, boozy English couple; the main action of the opera, the story of Lucretia, is an expression of their anxieties about the triumph of evil in the world.

Paul Steinberg designed the costumes, as well as the setting, in which an immense wall curves across the rear of the stage and another, smaller wall, covered with a dull gray pattern, pivots out to provide the backdrop for the Chorus' scenes. “The gray wall--I call it the Pinter wall--represents the contemporary world of the Chorus,” says Steinberg. “The other wall is clearly a more primitive, sexual space.” Carson works within these spaces, shaping them with light to create the broken worlds of Britten's imagination. “The lighting,” says Carson, “had to find a way to capture the tension between these two forces, as they were physicalized in the set. Through color temperature and extreme angles I was able to expand and contract the space.”

THE POWER OF INSTINCT
“I don't really work from the text,” continues Carson, who immediately begins by talking about the architecture of the set. “My argument is that the text is interpreted by the director, and physicalized by the designer--and that's what I'm lighting. It's a postmodern take--the whole situation becomes a text to be read. Lighting is a phenomenological art. You can't just use your head; you have to trust your gut.” As Paul Steinberg says, “She's a completely instinctual philosopher about her work.” Steinberg has collaborated with Carson, and Alden, on numerous operas. He and Carson are also colleagues at NYU's Department of Design. “She's a great, great teacher,” Steinberg says. Then, noting that the LD learned her craft largely through experience, he adds, laughing: “It's annoying, because she's not formally educated, yet she's so articulate.” Carson replies, “I read and study voraciously. I give my students a two-page list of texts from art, architecture, science, and philosophy to radically rethink how we think about light. My observational skills were honed early on; my parents were the ultimate bohemians. I was seeing foreign movies when I was seven years old.”

Typically, in pursuit of her design, Carson has bypassed most of the theatre's rep plot to achieve a series of strong, clear ideas with a relatively small number of strategically placed units. In the case of Lucretia, she points out, “The set blocks most of the rep plot. All the side booms are blocked and, because of our asymmetrical ground plan, the overhead stuff didn't really work. That left the footlights and the front of house, and I'm not a front-of-house girl--unless it's a full frontal blast.” However, the opera does begin with the Male and Female Chorus lit from the front by two ETC Source Fours in Lee 201 blue color correction, with a bank of fluorescent units skimming down the gray wall, to create a coldly presentational, bleached-out look. “One thing that's radical about the production is the use of the Male and Female Chorus as central players,” says the designer. “Christopher made them into a couple whose marriage is shaky,” she adds.

The gray wall pivots open to a one o'clock position, and the action shifts to Rome, where three generals, Tarquinius, Junius, and Collatinus, are drinking around a live campfire. In this and other scenes depicting the world of male power, the yellow wall is lit by five 150W sodium units in footlight positions. “The sodium is all about male energy,” says Carson: “It's aggressive, doesn't see all the colors in the spectrum--and yet it's extremely seductive.” The units work together to create a remarkably even coverage — it's virtually impossible to tell where the light is coming from--that gives the wall a malevolent glow. The wall lighting also creates any number of sinister shadows; a later entrance made by Tarquinius begins with the singer offstage, with his shadow preceding him like an angel of death.

Tarquinius, having heard of Lucretia's virtuous nature, sets out to have her for himself. The first act ends with his arrival at Lucretia's house, where he is taken in as a guest. “The gray wall has closed to a two o'clock position,” says Carson; “now we have the chaste, female, domestic space, lit from an Arri HMI 4kW on the down left apron position. The cool light from this unit contrasts markedly with the 1kW sodium unit placed on the floor, which pushes into the space where Tarquinius enters.” By the second act, the couch formerly used by the Chorus has been disengaged from their world and placed in the center of Lucretia's space--it is there that the rape takes place. Carson highlights the rape's destructive nature by using an overhead 12kW unit from up right. “It's the first time that the walls have completely opened up to 12 o'clock--the gray wall has swung all the way upstage. The 12k is placed just at the apex of those two walls to anchor that opening. The 12k fills the whole volume of space with light. It does give the scene some air, yet the outcome is inevitable--there is no place to hide.” The mounting intensity of the 12kW unit creates a disturbing glare, augmented by bounce light from the floor.

In the next scene, set on the morning after the rape, Lucretia's servants greet the morning as flower petals fall from above. The scene is lit by adding nine HMI PARs from overhead positions. “A beautiful new day dawns but, rather than contrast Lucretia's emotional state, I wanted to amplify it by compressing the space. Also, the 12k has a blue color correction filter in it,” says Carson. “There's a lavender-blue quality to the light that gives the flowers an electric look.” This lyrical moment soon gives way to Lucretia's final entrance, an excruciatingly slow promenade on the bench along the curve of the wall from right to down left, where she solemnly tells her husband what has happened. “It's flat and ugly--the only time we really use frontlight,” says Carson, adding that the effect is created by light from three HMI PARs coming straight in from the balcony rail. “They take a while to heat up, so they definitely continue to fill the space.”

A SINGULAR APPROACH
Carson's work appears to fit seamlessly with the opera, especially in Alden's conception and Steinberg's design. But the designer has developed her own aesthetic out of years of work in the downtown theatre world, with particular influence from the late, great LD Arden Fingerhut, choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and avant-gardist Richard Foreman. “I use floor lights as my face area light,” Carson says. “It's a signature thing for me, to put mini-10s in the footlights. You get a floodlight that goes all the way to the back of the set, and you get a shadow that goes from floor to ceiling. It's not apparent where the lighting starts and stops. It's just there, in the space. And it's more efficient--with one light, I can cover the whole set, versus who knows how many area lights. My new favorite thing is the V-Lite from Lowel-Lite; its 500W V-Lite is as powerful as a 1k mini-ten and it has a slimmer profile.

“I use a lot of single-source ideas,” she adds. “Single-source, single-shadow. I like to light a wall or a floor with just one unit, to light each plane separately. I don't divide the stage into areas based on human scale, but instead carve out the space based on its architecture. Each channel stands alone and is not dependent on others to complete it.” Furthermore, she adds, “In the last 10 years, I've become increasingly interested in equipment you can't control, that you can't dim or gel, specifically gymnasium and parking lot lights, so that the aesthetic is determined by the specificity of the choice of materials. Theatre equipment is designed to offer many choices. I thought if I could narrow down my choices, if I used equipment that couldn't be altered, I would clarify my choices. I have sought to create light as a visceral, active presence that has its own logic and structure. I've always been more interested in where the lights are placed rather than what they do. What you don't see is just as important, because that's what dictates the structure.” She insists that her approach is to concentrate on lighting the architecture of the set, and that many of her designs' most exciting moments come from happy accidents in which the staging and the lighting intersect in powerful ways. “I don't start with a picture in my head,” she adds.

Of course, Carson pays a price for this approach--she has, by her own admission, not always endeared herself to master electricians. She knows that her unusual instrument choices can make problems: “It takes longer to source stuff--which I help out with--and then when it arrives you have to figure out how to mount it, etc. The 12k units and the sodiums are not dimmable, which is a commitment you have to make, and the director has to be with you on it.” She can be flexible--she is perfectly willing to drop by the Home Depot and pick up some fluorescent units when they're needed--but, in retrospect, she is also certain that her uncompromising approach has, at times, cost her jobs.

She is very aware that her process may not be for everyone. “The lighting coordinator at Glimmerglass, Jeff Harris, couldn't have been nicer or more supportive,” she says, adding, “I know that my process taxed their system, but how do you advance an artform unless you challenge its system?” Ultimately, she says, “The work is either worth it or it's not.” Given the reaction to this production, clearly it was worth it. (She also cites the contribution of her assistant, Robert W. Henderson, Jr, a recent graduate of NYU.)

Anyway, she's sticking to her ideas. “My decisions don't come out of some ego-driven need to be different,” she says. “They really come out of analyzing the space.” She is also passionately committed to explaining herself: “The same light cue, explained differently, will stay in the show,” she adds. “Christopher and I had some of our best lighting sessions on days off, when we just talked through the lighting. I want to be very, very specific about what I do. So many lighting designers just shrug and say 'I don't know' when pressed as to why they did something--and lighting is incredibly hard to talk about. That's a point I emphasize in my teaching.”

Indeed, Carson must explain herself well, for she has been very busy this past year. For the Royal Shakespeare Company, she lit the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, which toured from Stratford to Ann Arbor, MI, then played London. (One of the designer's great projects was a stunning Measure for Measure at RSC.) She lit the Off Broadway production Lipstick Traces, which will tour later this year. The Rape of Lucretia will join the repertory at New York City Opera in 2003. Other new projects include Norma for Houston Grand Opera and Denver Opera, and, as part of her ongoing investigations into light as subject, she will do a rooftop installation for a new building going up on New York's Lower East Side. Some of her designs will be featured this month in a group exhibition at the Art Directors Club Gallery in New York. She also plans to write her lighting manifesto.

Carson adds that she is not a lone innovator: “You could call it a European aesthetic; I'm not the only one doing it.” And she is very aware of the risks of her approach: “I always work outside my comfort zone. If I fall, it's a pretty profound drop.” But she remains driven by certain ideas. “I'm interested in physicality versus opticality. Why should lighting positions in theatres relate to the architecture of the theatre and not to the architecture of the set?” she asks. “I think there are more interesting concerns than making sure that the 1' circumference of someone's head is always lit when they're singing.” As The Rape of Lucretia proves, when she's right, she's right.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com. Heather Carson has a website at www.lightaction.net.

THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA
Lighting Equipment

8

4' dimmable single-tube 40W cool white fluorescents

8

Lowel-Light 500W V-Lites

4

250W PAR-16s

5

150W sodiums

12

575W HMI NSP PARs

1

12kW HMI with barndoors

1

1kW sodium

1

1kW Mini-10

2

Arri 4kW theatrical HMIs with dimmable louvers

4

ETC Source Four PARs

18

ETC Source Fours

5

4' non-dimmable single-tube 40W daylight blue fluorescents

1

sconce