The past year has seen an unprecedented number of new American operas, including A Streetcar Named Desire at San Francisco Opera [ED January 99], Central Park, co-produced by Glimmerglass and New York City Opera, and The Great Gatsby, which premiered last month at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Of them all, perhaps the most attention was paid to A View From the Bridge, produced in October by Lyric Opera of Chicago. Featuring a score by William Bolcom and a libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Arthur Miller, from Miller's 1955 play, A View From the Bridge faced high expectations from audiences and critics alike.
It's not unusual for a new opera to open to great fanfare, then make a nosedive into deep obscurity. Fortunately, things look better for A View >From the Bridge, which opened to tumultuous applause and critical approval. One reason for this, perhaps, lies in the source material; with its dark family secrets, tragic betrayals, and a protagonist who self-destructs in public, Miller's play always felt like an opera. (Michael Mayer's recent Broadway staging, with its imaginative use of supernumeraries, further emphasized the resemblance). Indeed, Bolcom's opera follows the original play very closely. The stripped-for-action libretto clocks in at a whirlwind two-and-a-half hours. There is no wasted movement, no pauses for gratuitously beautiful music or star-stroking arias.
Set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s, A View From the Bridge follows the tragic case of Eddie Carbone, a dock worker who lives, apparently happily, with his wife Bea, and Bea's 17-year-old niece, Catherine. Their life together is permanently disrupted when Eddie agrees to take in Bea's two cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, a pair of illegal immigrants, driven from the poverty of postwar Italy to seek their fortunes on the Brooklyn waterfront. Marco is desperate to raise money for his wife and children, one of whom is seriously ill; the handsome and naive Rodolpho wants to strike it rich in America.
It's not long before Catherine and Rodolpho fall in love, much to the horror of Eddie, who harbors a deep, unspoken passion for his niece. This tense situation gradually becomes more and more untenable as Eddie loses his grip on Catherine, his torment climaxing in a shocking betrayal that forever destroys his family and leads to his death.
With or without music, A View From the Bridge is a complex treatment of a melodramatic subject. It is a 20th-century drama that deliberately evokes the structure of Greek tragedy--the character of Alfieri, the lawyer, acts essentially as chorus leader, commenting on the action. It is a deeply personal story, about one man's psychosexual obsessions, whose actions also have a devastating impact on the larger community. For these reasons, A View From the Bridge demands both a clear-eyed director and a strong design statement.
Which is exactly what the Lyric Opera of Chicago production has. Director Frank Galati has pulled together two of his colleagues from Ragtime, Santo Loquasto (scenery and costumes) and Wendall K. Harrington (projections), along with Lyric Opera's resident lighting designer Duane Schuler; this team has created a remarkably unified look that is not only starkly beautiful but which also gives the opera's action a cinematic ease of movement.
Loquasto and Harrington are, in their individual ways, uniquely equipped to evoke the world of Red Hook onstage. Loquasto has patrolled the streets of New York for many years, seeking out locations as the production designer on more than a dozen Woody Allen pictures, not to mention such New York-set films as Desperately Seeking Susan; Bright Lights, Big City; and Big. Speaking of Miller's characters, Harrington, who is of Italian ancestry, says, "These are my people. I grew up in Queens, but my grandmother settled in Red Hook, and much of my family still remains on President Street. I understood the politics of the neighborhood, how everybody there knows everything."
Loquasto's design features interior and exterior locations in a tightly packed unit that strongly evokes the industrial, utilitarian look of waterfront Brooklyn. Located stage right is the Carbone apartment and Catherine's bedroom. Located rear stage right is a section of the Brooklyn Bridge, where the chorus is often seen, staring down at Eddie in judgment. Further downstage right is another bridge-style balcony, where Alfieri appears to comment on the action. The entire set is black, angular, defined by rough textures, including brickwork on the bridge and a deck made to resemble cobblestone. Loquasto is sparing with natural details, but each one counts: A statue of the Blessed Virgin, placed prominently on a pillar in the apartment, serves as a reminder of the Italian-Catholic attitudes that have shaped Eddie's ideas about women. A carefully placed pay phone is barely noticeable until Eddie makes his fateful call to the Immigration police.
John David Peters, head of the San Diego Opera Scene Shop, notes that the cobblestone deck is fiberglass sheeting, which was purchased from Warner Bros.Studio Facilities. "They use this stuff on location all the time," he adds. "Everything Santo resourced was spot-on, including the vacuform brick and the light fixtures. He's so detail-oriented. You should see the model--it's gorgeous. It was as strong or stronger than the actual scenery." (This sense of detail included the right pipe fittings for the set's bridge unit. Peters and his crew searched for the correct fittings; when the fittings arrived, they were covered in chrome, which would never do on Loquasto's black set. Having made a substantial investment in the items, Peters sent them to a nearby metal shop, where the chrome was removed via an acid bath.)
Behind the set are two rear-projection screens, each approximately 35' x 35', on which Harrington unleashes a stately cascade of haunting, black-and-white imagery, evoking Brooklyn, its tenements, the waterfront, the Brooklyn Bridge. When, in the prologue, the chorus sings of the community's roots in Sicily, the screens feature a stunning view of the Amalfi coast. Later, Rodolpho sings an aria about his dream of "the New York lights," which climaxes in a gorgeous panorama of Manhattan after dark. When Eddie, in a fit of rage, kisses Rodolpho on the mouth, in a misguided attempt to expose him as a homosexual, the projected image of a Brooklyn tenement, suddenly turns into a negative, as if to show that Eddie has crossed a line into territory from which he may not return.
Loquasto says that his decision to use projections in the design came "instantly." He adds, "There are two issues: One is to maintain the intimacy of the play, the other is to fill the space with a visual dynamic that is as fluid as possible since the set is static. Also, there are so many images one has of that period--the late 40s and 50s--including the film On the Waterfront and the neorealist Italian films, all of which was in the research that I put together. The use of projections seemed the most natural direction to take."
Harrington says she and her associate designer, Chelsea Pennebaker, spent time in Red Hook, taking in the local atmosphere, then "I went and took a bath in all these pictures." She's referring to the hundreds of images pulled from her usual sources, which includes the Library of Congress and various newspaper archives. Many of them were then manipulated using Adobe Photoshop. (One building exterior was photographed from the vantage point of Harrington's East Village kitchen.) Many of the images are sharply angled--brownstones and bridges that often loom menacingly over the characters--a decision that works well with the jagged contours of Loquasto's scenery. (Another screen, made of scrim wrapped about a metal tube structure and placed at a tilt above the Carbone apartment, is also used occasionally. When Eddie turns to Alfieri for advice, the lawyer's office door is projected there. For this screen, the 4k Pani projector is located up in the flies; the image is bounced off a mirror and onto the back of the scrim).
At this point, the designers began to cope with the challenge of working on an unproduced opera. Harrington worked out her storyboards armed with only a tape of the piano score, which reduced the complex music to a bowl of audio mush. "It was so horrible to listen to," says the designer, who adds she loves the finished musical product. "I got this tinny, bad tape of music that you positively don't want to hear, and I had to determine what was going to happen moment to moment in this opera."
The next challenge was the summer tech, a technical run-through which, amazingly, took place before the opera was staged. According to Peters, who has built many productions for the Lyric Opera, "The summer tech is specific to Chicago and other companies, like San Francisco Opera and the Met. They perform in rep, so once they get into the season, they don't have time to do a lot of production work. They start loading into the theatre in June, putting up the rep lighting. Then they take the last show they'll perform in rep, put it in the theatre, assemble it completely, bring in the director and designers, and spend about a week doing all of the lighting and establishing the looks. At the end of the week, they load that show out, then bring the next to last show in. They work backwards through the whole season so, by September, they have the season's first show onstage." At that point, rehearsals with the actors begin.
Loquasto notes that the summer tech for View was particularly challenging because of the projections. "It was very difficult," he says, "because Wendall was designing the transitions and we were not certain of the counts or what the impact would be, vocally or musically. [At this point, the team was still working with that piano score.] But," he adds, "we went at it anyway." The summer tech revealed what changes needed to be made, both to the projections and to RP screens. Typically, Harrington covers them with bobbinette to cut down on bounce light; for this production, an extra layer of scrim was added as well. The designer used four in-house Pani projectors with PIGI scrollers for the RP screens supplied by Production Arts.
After the summer tech, Loquasto turned his full attention to the production's costumes, which consisted almost entirely of period working-class wear (along with a single handsome suit for Alfieri. Although the opera's time frame is the 1950s, the designer says, "I kept the community more in the late 1940s," noting that Brooklyn laborers don't wear the latest fashions. Also, he says, "Even today, when you visit communities like that, with a strong European centrality to them, the women still wear similar housedresses. Even though they're not exactly like the 1940s, they still have very simple lines. I showed Catherine Malfitano [who plays Bea] pictures of Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren--I wanted the look of a real Italian woman of a certain age, in a tight housedress, with a real sexuality and vitality, even though she's not a kid." The principal characters had a touch of color in their clothing, "which not only gave them some warmth and also allowed them to emerge from the chorus, which is very dark." The chorus is mostly dressed in outerwear--the action takes place in fall and winter--much of which is actual vintage clothing. ("Outerwear holds up," adds the designer).
Costumes for the production were built in a variety of shops. Catherine Malfitano's dresses were constructed by Euro Co in New York. The costumes for Juliana Rambaldi and Isabel Bayrakdarian, who alternated as Catherine, were built by DLCC, also in New York. The principal men's costumes were built by Malabar Limited, in Toronto, and the chorus women's outfits were built by Carelli Costumes, Inc., in New York. Costumes for Kim Josephson, who played Eddie, and Dale Travis, who played one of Eddie's chums, as well as the entire chorus and understudies, were coordinated by the Lyric Opera of Chicago costume department (Hugh Pruett is the costume director).
For his part, Stan Dufford, the Lyric Opera's wigmaster and makeup designer, says, "We used very little makeup. It's not theatrical in the usual sense, like if we were doing Turandot." The hair work on the production was relatively minor, as well. Timothy Nolen, who plays Alfieri, has long hair, which was disguised with a wig; Gregory Turay, who plays Rodolpho, had his hair lightened (the character's blonde hair is a key plot point). There are also some wigs on members of the chorus.
Other key personnel on the project included associate set designer Emily Beck, associate costume designer Mitchell Bloom, projection programmer Paul Vershbow, projection coordinator Michael Clark, and rights and reproduction coordinator Pamela Steuedemann. Drew Landmesser is the company's technical director.
All the designers speak happily about the project. "It was a great collaboration," says Loquasto, "with Frank and Duane and Wendall and myself. The give and take was very open and reasonably without neurosis"--he adds, laughing, "I'm speaking for myself, of course!" Harrington says, "This is the kind of project that makes me say, okay, this is the standard to which all other projects are held." DB
The monochromatic environment created by Loquasto's unit set and the black-and-white imagery of Harrington's projections provided an interesting, yet challenging, canvas for lighting designer Duane Schuler to work with. "The set is shiny, yet heavily textured so the light doesn't bounce around too much," says Schuler, resident lighting designer at the Chicago Lyric Opera.
"Design-wise, the play serves as the reference. It takes place in a real time, in a real place that has been abstracted for the stage," says Schuler who discovered that Loquasto's abstract of Brooklyn, with its large projection screens, precluded using most of the usual repertory plot hung in the house. "The screens blocked the standard pipes," explains Schuler, who added lights in every possible nook and cranny to compensate for an opera that has very few cues scenically but a great number of lighting cues, yet not much color.
"We added some specials overhead and re-focused the front-of-house positions to be able to pull in tightly on certain areas of the stage," he notes. An example of this is when the Sicilian cousins walk down the ramp off of the ship onto the dock, and the lighting follows them closely.
The overall design of the set left space for just one lighting boom position stage right. This holds 26 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, both 19-degree and 26-degree units gelled with Lee 201, 203, 204, and 205. Stage left, where there is more room, Schuler was able to squeeze in four additional boom positions. Each boom has eight instruments, a combination of 19-degree and 10-degree Source Four ellipsoidals and standard PAR-64s with Wybron Forerunner scrollers. "The PARs are focused on the floor to change the color of the shiny faux brick surface," Schuler explains. "I wanted to give the floor a variety of colors that change with the exterior locations."
The use of four 2.5k Altman fresnels with Wybron scrollers, hung overhead on the third, fourth, and fifth electrics, provides strong backlight. The fresnel hung on the fifth electric adds diagonal light into the apartment interior, while the others are used for the various multiple-level exteriors.
"The scrollers provided options," says Schuler, who defined his Brooklyn nights with cool shades of blue and green. His use of linear breakup patterns helped texture the light and boost the levels without a flat look. "I needed to keep the ambient light levels low and the focus very specific to work well with the projections," Schuler says. "Yet I wanted to add an edge and keep it from getting gloomy."
Various specials are used to help pick performers out of the dark environment. For example, the lawyer Alfieri is lit with two 10-degree Source Four ellipsoidals as he stands on a downstage left catwalk. Schuler also used 10-degree Source Fours as followspots with a close, controlled beam. Additional 10-degree Source Fours serve as specials within the apartment itself to frame the easy chair that is Eddie's favorite spot.
At the center of the interior is a large column that helps support the large angled screen behind the apartment. The lower part of the column serves as a focal point in the apartment, with practicals providing a steady glow on a statue of the Virgin Mary. In addition, six 3" Arri fresnels are built into the set behind the column to provide light in the upper corners.
To light large warehouse doors on rollers, Schuler used a pair of Strand 2k fresnels, one angled and one shining straight through, as a powerful backlight tinted with Lee 201. This provides dramatic moments with the singers caught standing in silhouette against the dark background. At other moments, the chorus is also caught in silhouette as they begin to sing.
Practicals include a series of street lights on poles on the bridge above the warehouse arches, and hanging downlights with PAR-38 lamps. On occasion, these street lights look as if they are actually part of the scenes projected behind them, in this seamless juxtaposition of two- and three-dimensional imagery. "At the top of the show, there is an industrial projection upstage and a scrim downstage. One of the warehouse pole lights is centered perfectly on the image and you don't even realize it's there," says Schuler.
At the end of the opera, the hot white light of a low-voltage Pani beam projector serves as a death special, giving an almost religious glow to the tableau of a grieving family. "The final cue is an eight-second fade to black, but the low-voltage filament takes a full 10 seconds to go out. This gives a two-second delay on Eddie and Catherine," Schuler explains. "This is a great look due to the long fade time on the low-voltage lamp, which is a beautiful source with an exquisite beam."
Schuler's lighting recalls the chiaroscuro technique of classical painting. "Some exterior scenes are quite bright actually, but it is a very black world," he says. "The people are etched out of the dark. I wanted to make sure you could see their faces and hear their words. The story and the words are very important in this opera. Their faces also stay very clear so you can see their major emotional shifts. This was crucial."
With such a powerful libretto, Schuler was aware that the story must be the primary objective. "It had to be visually believable," he says. "The lighting needed to stay fluid and make the dramatic moments work on a unit set. It also needed enough variety during the exterior scenes to keep it interesting."