Hang a painting on a wall without a frame, and the work of art easily loses its impact. Put the right frame around that work, however, and it comes to life, capturing your imagination. So it was with two recent Richard Wagner productions by the LA Opera: four-part Ring des Nibelungen and Lohengrin. In keeping with today’s opera-house trend of embracing technology to attract audiences, LA Opera technical director Jeff Kleeman and his technical crew used MAXON’s Cinema 4D to create meticulously designed video projections. While magnifying the spectacle of the Ring cycle in its entirety, the projections added grit and atmosphere to Lohengrin.

“What you have in opera are very large stage houses that are hard to fill, and you have a need for spectacle whether it’s scenic spectacle or special effects spectacle,” Kleeman explains. “That’s where projections come in and we’re definitely on the cutting edge.” According to opera aficionados, an opera house only comes of age when it has successfully staged a production of Ring des Nibelungen. Comprising four separate operas, the Ring Cycle is not a production for the faint of heart. Most famous for the musical extract “Ride of the Valkyries,” this magnum opus, an epic tale of man, gods, nature, power and how power corrupts, can easily reveal any opera house’s limitations.

Determined to make a mark upon the operatic world, Placido Domingo, the opera house’s general director, hired the talented but controversial German artist and director Achim Freyer for the Ring Cycle. The goal was to create a strikingly visual production that added another layer to the work without distorting or obfuscating the composer’s original meaning. In addition to directing the four-part, 18-hour opera, Freyer, who was then 74, was also set designer, co-lighting director, and co-costume designer for the productions. His bold visual concept included a cast clad in oversized masks, elaborate costumes, and heavy make-up, as well as dramatic lighting and a giant, slightly raked turntable on stage.

Freyer met with the LA Opera’s technical production staff twice a week for three years to go over ideas for the projections he wanted to create. Complicating this old-school approach was the fact that Freyer is not fluent in English, so his direction was delivered via translator. Freyer also used sketches to convey his visual ideas. Each drawing, some as small as one inch square, were stunning in their expression and invaluable to the designers who would then recreate, scan, or animate them. Sometimes, Freyer would sit behind animators as they worked in C4D, using them as if they were paintbrush extensions of himself. “He was a kid in a candy shop,” recalls Kleeman.

In all, 1,500 cues of projections were created to accompany 18 hours of music. Videos and stills were continuously projected onto a 70’x40’ translucent scrim stretched across the opening of the stage and the same-sized vinyl rear-projection screen at the back of the stage. “On a scale of 10, the Ring would be an 11 for degree of difficulty,” says Kleeman. “It couldn’t have been done without CINEMA 4D.”

Lohengrin
While Wagner’s Lohengrin, a romantic German opera based on Arthurian medieval legends, had a far more subtle look than the Ring Cycle, the challenges were just as great. This time, the projections were to be used to create atmosphere and to frame the opera in its own discreet way. With three screens covering the entire back of the stage, the effect was a synchronized panorama that included bomb blasts, flashes of lightning, and a “miracle effect” whereby the slate grey sky would shimmer and ripple at pivotal points in the opera, representing subtle, supernatural moments in the story.

The greatest challenge facing Alisa Lapidus, projection designer for the opera house, when creating the projections for Lohengrin was making them look seamless as they appeared on three separate screens from four different projectors. Her solution was to make a diorama of a landscape that, when uploaded, broke projections down into a triptych.

Disheartened by what she saw in rehearsals after hours of work, Lapidus and animator Eli Kleeman used C4D to rework certain movements that didn’t look right in large-scale video format. “One thing I absolutely love about Cinema 4D is that I mainly use it for graphics because I can get a really interesting graphic moving and animated, and I can tweak it really easily,” Eli Kleeman says.

When combined, Lapidus’ triptych of videos appeared as one long visual image that was intended to have an unconscious effect on the audience by bringing to life the harsh, wintery atmosphere of the opera. “Hopefully, in an unassuming way, the projections offer a realistic, high-definition background with depth, movement and effects built into it, as well as change of day,” says Kleeman, adding that C4D has changed the look of productions at the 25-year-old LA Opera, which historically used 7”x7” slides to project images on screens. “We feel at this point our abilities visually are unlimited, and it’s just a matter of how you get there, what you use to get there and how long it takes to get there.”

Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles living with his wife and son.

For a look at Robert Lepage’s New York production of the Ring Cycle at The Metropolitan Opera, check out the April issue of Live Design.