A larger-than-life figure during the French Enlightenment, Emilie du Châtelet was a respected mathematician, physicist, and author who died in 1749 during childbirth, at the age of 42. The opera, Emilie, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf, examines aspects of her life. A production directed by Marianne Weems of The Builders Association enjoyed its US premiere last season at the Spoleto Festival and returns this summer, July 19 to 21, at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival.

Projections by Austin Switser add to the visual texture and reflect Emilie du Châtelet’s complex and multidisciplinary approach to her life and work. "We aimed to recreate Emilie’s mind space rather than recreating her surroundings," Switser says. "Emilie was profoundly ahead of her time in her understanding of physics, mathematics, engineering, and astronomy yet, at the same time, also deeply tormented by her personal and romantic life with French society and with Voltaire, her paramour."

To create a poetic interpretation of the thoughts that consumed Emilie’s time and imagination, Switser incorporates images that represent her scientific experiments alongside text that mimics her writing about light, energy, and time. "Simultaneously, I integrated imagery to depict her weighty intellectual debates with Voltaire, her seminal analysis of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and, perhaps most heartbreaking, the looming threat of death posed by her fateful pregnancy," he says.

Playback is via a five-channel Dataton Watchout v5 system, with a Cycling '74 Max/MSP patch that runs on an Apple Mac Pro to add custom effects to a live camera feed that comes from stage. "The Mac Pro output is sent to capture cards in the Watchout rack so that it can be integrated into the rest of the content," notes Switser, who uses two Barco SLM R12+ Performer projectors for a wash across multiple downstage screens and three Panasonic PT-D5600 projectors to cover upstage screens. "All of the downstage screens are made of Textilene, which add depth as the image passes through each layer," Switser adds, as he brings the Age of Enlightenment onto the contemporary stage.

Related Articles