"Projection designer" isn't a title you often see in the program of a concert at a major symphony orchestra. For that matter, neither is "director and designer." These titles showed up in the program for the San Francisco Symphony's "semi-staged" concert presentation of Debussy's "Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien" this January.
"Sébastien" was written in 1911 as a play with music for full symphony, two vocal soloists, a full choir and a narrator. It is unlikely that Claude Debussy anticipated that it would eventually involve digital images projected on reflective panels with a projected performance by one of the San Francisco Ballet's principal dancers, Damian Smith.
Michael Tilson Thomas, or MTT as he's known throughout San Francisco, engaged veteran stage director Anne Patterson to devise a dramatic presentation for the piece. Having worked before with projection designer Adam Larsen on both theatrical productions and classical concerts, she turned to him for a visual realization of her concept of the tale of the Christian martyr executed in the third century for his faith.
Larsen and Patterson first worked together in 2008 when she was staging a concert for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra that included Henryk Górecki's super-atmospheric "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." She had used his images to give that piece a bit of a story arc even though the symphony didn't have a storyline.
The story arc for the Debussy piece, however, came directly from Debussy's librettist, Gabriele d'Annunzio, who wrote "Saint Sébastien" as a mystery play in the sensuous impressionistic style taking hold in drama as well as in music at the start of the twentieth century. Patterson came up with a presentation concept that included three performance platforms hovering above the orchestra where vocalists and the narrator could be seen while images played over four hanging curtains, each 14' high but of different widths ranging from 5' to 15'.
Larsen and Patterson met in New York some three months before the performance, when Patterson explained her concept of projections onto suspended screens. As often as Larsen finds he has to project onto screens of one kind or another, he says, "I hate screens. I like to project onto things." Often, as in Patterson's production of the musical The Women of Brewster's Place at Washington DC's Arena Stage and Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, for which Larsen designed projections, he finds he can project directly onto the surfaces of the set. "My interest is in making projection just one part of design, not 'special effects,'" he says.
However, in the 2,743-seat Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, there would be no set. Patterson had discovered the string curtain panels from Rose Brand, which Larsen says are reflective and capture images well but also move with the air and allow light to travel though to illuminate the space behind them where the choir would occupy the center terrace benches. The atmospheric effect of those panels of different widths at different distances from the lip of the stage became the environment needed for this production.
For the images that would be projected on those screens, she asked Larsen to come upwith a variety of still and moving pictures ranging from scenes of nature such as trees, clouds and flowers, details from classic paintings and Italian architecture, flames, and a male figure moving in haunting postures.
For the male image, Larsen turned to Damian Smith, a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet. Only three days before the first performance, Larsen shot video of Smith as he went through the choreography of Myles Thatcher, a member of the company's corps de ballet.
Two principal segments were choreographed. One was an "ecstatic dance" celebrating Christianity, which Larsen said MTT wanted to be energetic, "almost as if Saint Sébastien were dancing on hot coals." Larsen says he "collaged Damian's movements together, abstracting it to span all four panels and then overlaid this with flames." The second dance segment was an homage to Christ by Saint Sébastien. Here Larsen used slow motion and transitioned between a wide shot and close ups on just one panel.
The two-and-a-half hour session also provided the material Larsen needed for one final segment which came just before Saint Sébastien's martyrdom. Here Larsen strove for an effect that would seem as if Saint Sébastien was "walking through a sunlit grove of trees, walking across the stage-left panel, arriving on the center panel and then slowly turning to walk toward us, dissolving into the dappled grove."
There wasn't time for a full run-through with the orchestra, but Larsen and Patterson ran sequences for the conductor for his feedback. "MTT was great in providing us the guidance we needed to match images to the pace of the piece as he would conduct it," Larsen says, adding, "We had his earlier recording of 'Saint Sébastien' with the London Symphony as a guide to tempos." Also helpful was the fact that the stage manager had marked the score with time hacks every 15 seconds, Larsen says, "so we knew pretty well how it was going to play out before the first performance."
The images were all loaded into twin computers using a Dataton Watchout Multi Display System (V 5.1) to control two Barco FLM HD20 3-chip DLP projectors stacked in a booth at the back of the hall. The booth also contained two 12K projectors for for the surtitle system. Larsen says it got pretty hot in there. They had to bring in an Office Pro 24 auxiliary air conditioner from MovinCool to handle the load
The entire system worked flawlessly through the three performances of the piece.