Hot on the heels of her Tony win for the Broadway production of War Horse, UK-based lighting designer Paule Constable was back at Lincoln Center for three very different productions at The Metropolitan Opera this past fall: Anna Bolena, Don Giovanni, and Satyagraha. While the first two were new productions this season, Satyagraha premiered at The Met in 2008, as a co-production with The English National Opera (ENO), yet at a time when Constable was unable to make it to New York. “Kevin Sleep, head of lighting at the ENO, actually made my Met debut for me,” she recalls. “It was a rather unusual situation.”
So Constable made a delayed debut in terms of her physical presence, with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as directed by David McVicar, with sets by Robert Jones and costumes by Jenny Tiramani. “He is a long-standing friend and colleague,” Constable says of McVicar. “My first opera with him was Sweeney Todd, 14 years ago for Opera North, when he was the enfant terrible of the opera world, and then we did Fidelio in New Zealand and Manon for ENO and have worked together consistently since then. I tend to work with a few specific directors.” Set in and around a castle during the reign of Henry VIII, Anna Bolena challenged Constable with lighting a very large, enclosed set. “The walls and ceiling pieces made it so there was incredibly restricted access to everything, and we had to build extra lighting positions and booms everywhere. White faux brick walls in one room were unforgiving in terms of light,” she says, noting that the biggest universal challenge at The Met is the lack of a decent rep rig and the lack of lighting positions front-of-house. As a result, Constable found herself relying on ladders and a couple of overhead positions. “It was a real baptism by fire,” she notes.
When the set designer presented his model a few years earlier, Constable’s first reaction was to make sure she could get some light into each space on the set, which is often divided into several rooms. One of her successful solutions, after studying the ground plans, was to place a boom behind each window. “The reflected light through the windows in the first scene of Anna Bolena was created bouncing PAR cans off mirrors in Lee 201 to add an amazing texture on the dark paneling of this room, which took light nicely.” There were also candelabra with real candles in front of each window, for extra warmth. Singer Anna Netrobko, acclaimed in the title role of Anne Boleyn, made her grand entrance through a set of doors upstage, at which point Constable used a pair of ETC Source Four PARs on an arm behind the singer to accent her appearance. “It was a tricky design, as the opera starts at night,” she notes. “There was also a lot of black in the costumes that absorbed light and black painted floorboards, not as warm as actual wood.” A hunt scene was the brightest, in which Constable used additional backlight on overhead bars to create clear silhouettes for the shapes of the costumes and trees. “It was a quite crisp outdoor scene, with a lot of Lee 201 and 202,” she explains.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, set in 18th-century Spain, was directed by Michael Grandage and featured a large curved set depicting a street in Seville. Designed by Christopher Oram, who also did the costumes (both Grandage and Oram in their Met debuts), and colored with shades of red and gray to evoke lath and plaster façades with wooden shutters, the set was very far downstage. “I had to add an extra lighting bar and convince the designer and director to push the whole show upstage by one meter, which wasn’t a problem,” Constable says, noting that she did not use followspots in the downstage scenes, but only when the set opened to reveal an interior piazza. For the scene in which Don Giovanni and Leporello wear each other’s clothes, Constable intentionally left the characters in a rather dark space, so those watching them from the upper windows would see shaded singers, with light coming from stage right, and as an example of the cross-light used in these downstage scenes. Four ETC Source Four Profiles with scrollers using Lee 201, 202, and 203, and two PARs in open white, plus one ARRI 5kW tungsten Fresnel, were used on booms. Two Philips Vari-Lite VL1000 Tungsten units on the floor and an additional two in the lowest side boxes, all mostly in open white, acted as fill light. VL3000s were used to backlight the side alleys when the set opened. The set was punctuated with numerous windows to represent rooms in its downstage position and niches when open to reveal the piazza. “Each room had lights,” says Constable, noting that birdies provided back- and frontlight as Giovanni’s numerous female conquests were revealed in the windows, with what the designer calls “a Goya light or orangey glow.”
Don Giovanni’s dramatic descent to hell on a stage lift was lit with VL3000s in red from below the floor to accent the flames created by six firepots with lycopodium powder, which Constable describes as “like a chemical burn off that created a more organic fire than propane.”
The most contemporary of the three operas is Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, which follows the path of Mahatma Gandhi, who coined the word “satyagraha” to define the challenge of non-violent resistance that the Indians in South Africa displayed against British colonialists. For Constable, the challenge was “transferring a show we made at ENO completely based around 5kWs and PAR cans into a show made with 10° Source Fours and battens.” Directed and designed by Phelim McDermott with associate set designer Julian Crouch and costume designer Kevin Pollard, and video design by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions, Satyagraha was set within corrugated metal walls. “It was lovely to light,” says Constable, whose color palette was largely designed around the video in the opera, which she feels provided a sense of a real situation. “In the beginning, Gandhi appeared in a soft Lee 203, which built in sensuality and vividness as the sense of the spiritual came more alive. As Krishna appeared, we started to use rich blues, so we went from simple, stripped back white/gray to resonant Lee 205 and Rosco 383,” she says.
“The palette was simple throughout to echo the simplicity of Gandhi and his teachings,” Constable adds. “He was often warm, glowing. The light felt as if it came from within. It was intense, white, engaging. It was not about creating images to make the audience more distant, but about trying to make his soul shine through as if the light came from him.” Color was for the bigger moments, such as the appearance of gods and a farm; the cooler light was for violence and solitude. “It should all make us watch harder, better,” adds Constable. “When the set split, it wasn’t sensational. It was like the whole piece was a natural progression—nothing jarred it. The split created a window to the RP screen behind. It opened our heads and minds to the blue of the sky, a sense of emotional release.” There were also sticky tape strips on the set that resonated in Lee 203 with cross-light from downstage, or as Constable puts it, “so it looked like a vibrating humming creature or how carefully you watch Martin Luther King in a single 10° Source Four top light in Lee 203, and can imagine that you can hear every word he isn’t saying. There were also moments when the cross-light made you feel as if the characters were lit from within.”
Constable used followspots on all of these productions, in addition to cross-light, which helped pull the performers out, without lighting the floor. “Followspots used without the cross-light would cause the singers to disappear,” she explains. “They would feel a million miles away.” Eight Lycian 1295 ELT 4,000W Xenon units (new to the Met with custom three-blade dowsers) were used front-of-house in Anna Bolena, while seven were used FOH for Don Giovanni along with one PANI 12,000W HMI over the stage on a bridge. In Satyagraha, two Lycian 1216 incandescent followspots sat behind the proscenium, one stage left, and one stage right. In terms of working at The Met, Constable applauds general manager Peter Gelb. “It’s amazing what he’s trying to do there,” she says. “He’s a real producer, like the David Merrick of the opera world.” Yet she would love the opportunity to update the rep rig. “Some 5kWs, PAR cans for three-quarter backlight, some moving lights that aren’t discharge sources, some bright discharge movers—the list is endless.” In spite of those desires, Constable made the most of what there was to work with, designing three visually dramatic operas and showing her strong suit in illuminating three very different worlds.