Seattle Opera technical director of Robert Schaub had initiated a move toward incorporating more digital media into the Opera’s designs, taking advantage of the recession’s insistence on reexamining the cost of physical production to further explore new developments in technology. He embraced the new advances and even took his team to Las Vegas to see the Cirque du Soleil production, The Beatles’ Love. After a previous collaboration on a production of Parsifal, also designed by Israel, which had successfully incorporated digital media and projections, Schaub contacted Bob and Colleen Bonniol of Mode Studios to consult on a new digital media system for the venue in time for Tristan Und Isolde. The Opera and Mode started with the idea of buying six 12kW projectors plus the necessary control system, but they ended up adding six Barco 20kW FLM projectors with full lens packages, still within budget, along with a Green Hippo media server system.

“The Seattle Opera has a very special set of criteria that must be adhered to,” says Colleen Bonniol, adding that choosing such a system is comparable to building blocks. “We wanted a system that allowed the designers to be able to place projectors where they are needed and yet still have flexibility for the special needs of individual productions. This gives the Opera, and anyone else looking to bring their theatre into the realm of projection, a fabulous foundation to build from.”

Since the scale of the Opera’s productions is often very large, a quiet environment had to be maintained to enhance the vocals of its artists. “Projection, size, and quiet don’t often go together,” says Bonniol. “The Barco FLMs are liquid-cooled and, subsequently, the quietest projector on the market, making them the best choice for the Seattle Opera’s needs.”

Tristan und Isolde was the first opera to use the newly acquired equipment. There was no projection designer credited on this project, allowing the digital media to be a collaboration among members of the design team and the technical staff. Schaub believes that it is “incumbent upon us to have a storyboard; it starts with a good idea, and the multimedia is just another tool toward realizing that idea.” In other words, “Don’t get in the way of Wagner,” he jokes, adding that it was important to keep the skills needed to realize the digital media in-house and was meant as a learning process for both the Opera team and the Tristan team.

In order to incorporate the new multimedia system into the design process in the tight schedule of large-scale opera, Schaub and his team created a pre-visualization lab in the Opera offices. Using the set model, small LED lighting fixtures, and pocket projectors that put out a proportional number of lumens onto the scale model as the Barco projectors would in the theatre, the design team was able to prepare the media and cull options before going into tech.

The system itself is extremely facile. For this production, the new house projectors were distributed both upstage and front-of-house. The two upstage projectors used wide-angle lenses to allow for full coverage of the upstage RP screen. Front-of-house, one projector was placed on the followspot bridge, one in the followspot booth, and two on the balcony rail. Because the balcony rail projectors were in soundproof boxes constructed for older, smaller projectors, they were focused using mirrors. Each of the six Barco projectors was run via one of six Green Hippo HippoCritters.

During the pre-visualization process, the HippoCritters could be brought into the lab and attached to the pocket projectors. Assistant technical director Chris Reay and assistant LD Tlaloc Lopez-Waterman designed the system by which the HippoCritters were controlled, including two networks (HippoNet for the Critters to communicate and Art-Net). A PC laptop running Zookeeper software controlled the media switches and HippoCritters. A second laptop was used during tech to manipulate the media through Adobe Premier software.

The projections really became another lighting tool, according to Kazaras. “Duane was able to work with the projections in a way that supported them rather than competed with them,” he says. There was no lighting around the projections; Schuler could put light on stage, and projections could go on top of it. He found that using two projectors on the upstage RP was more successful than his cyc lights for fields of color and texture. The projection team was rounded out by Peter Lucier.

Schaub and Lopez-Waterman explain that the Opera hopes to move toward the more standard setup of an MA Lighting grandMA console triggering the HippoCritters directly and using Green Hippo’s Zookeeper remote control software for the pre-visualization and tech process only. They felt limited by the ability to edit in realtime using Zookeeper’s timeline, instead of a more traditional cue list format for such a large production.

It was important from the beginning that the projections not replace scenery or serve as pictorial representations; instead, they provided atmosphere and texture to the sparse production. To that end, Lopez-Waterman and the rest of the Opera team created media on the fly and as need arose in the design process. Both Schuler and Israel also brought in content, and Lopez-Waterman sometimes went out to film water in the nearby sound or the flickering flame in his own lantern.

Schuler says that it was interesting to work without an additional designer, noting the process was “fun and invigorating” and didn’t allow anyone to sit back and wait for others to have ideas. “You could feel the immediate consensus when we got it right,” he says. For Kazaras, projections added a vocabulary that was reminiscent and about things one cannot grasp, which made sense. “Try as you might,” he says. “You will never grasp Tristan.”

Natalie Robin is a NYC-based lighting designer who designs theatre, opera, dance, music, and performance art. She is a founding and associate company member of Polybe + Seats and an associate artist of Target Margin Theatre. She is also an adjunct faculty member in NYU’s Department of Undergraduate Drama. This season, she is designing Second Language with Target Margin, Mozart’s Mitridate with little Opera Theatre of New York, and touring with Miguel Gutierrez. www.natalierobinlighting.com