With Rick Fisher and Duane Schuler at The Santa Fe Opera
On a hot, dusty Saturday morning in late June, I met with lighting designers Rick Fisher and Duane Schuler in Santa Fe, NM, during the opening weekend of the 2007 summer season at Santa Fe Opera. Fisher designed three of the productions for the Opera's 51st season — La Bohème, Daphne, and Tea: A Mirror of Soul (July 2007, p. 72) — and Schuler, the other two (Cosí Fan Tutte and Platée). Over breakfast burritos and blue-corn pancakes, we discussed their history with Santa Fe Opera and the company's challenging and somewhat unusual repertory lighting system and intern program.
Duane Schuler: Director John Copley asked me to design Madame Butterfly here 11 years ago. I'd been here once before to meet with John Conklin to discuss a new Ring Cycle for Chicago. That must have been 20 years ago. After Madame Butterfly, I came back every summer and designed two to three shows; last year was an exception, when I did four.
Rick Fisher: I was brought out by director Daniel Slater to do Woyzeck seven years ago. What's interesting about Santa Fe from a management point of view is that they do more than other managements. Because they were bringing me out to do one thing, they suggested me to directors who didn't know me, which was good. So I ended up doing Egyptian Helen with director Bruce Donnell. It's great that they are active in helping a designer make new links.
DS: Before I got here, Craig Miller had been the lighting designer for many years. I came the year after he passed away. The seat you are sitting in when you are designing is the Craig Miller memorial seat. He was here for a long time. Now there is the new theatre, but the stage platform didn't change. The entire roof was raised about 6', but the positions and coves are pretty much in the same places and still a little small for 5kWs with scrollers and HMIs. The followspots are now behind glass, which is good for the operators as it gets cold and windy up there. The big difference is the larger number of circuits and dimmers.
RF: The raison d'être is that you never see a lighting fixture here, which means there are certain things you can't do, but the shows look magical as the light is just there…
DS: …which is good for the surroundings.
RF: It helps preserve the idea you are doing opera outdoors, even though now it's semi-outdoors. The new roof covers the audience, while the old one had a 20-row gap over the expensive seats.
When John Crosby started this opera festival, there were no festivals or much regional opera in the US. The idea of a residential festival in a place that couldn't sustain an opera house has left an important legacy. It has inspired a lot of opera in America on a big scale.
DS: The unique thing is that almost the entire stage crew is made up of apprentices, some of whom come back as staff. During the off-season, the assistant technical director and prop master do the USITT circuit and go to colleges to interview for apprentices in all areas, from lighting to the chorus.
RF: Training has always been a core part of Santa Fe Opera in every area.
DS: We have eight lighting apprentices who hang and focus all the shows. A back rep plot is hung, a plot that's been around a long time with a backlight system of ETC Source Four PARs and Wybron CXI scrollers. Those are not re-focusable and stay intact. Every other lamp can be focused. Last year, when I did four shows, I modified a few things.
RF: They hang fixtures anyplace they can, as long as the audience can't see them.
DS: Focus is every day at 6pm when there is a lot of daylight, so they have to put down focus tape or a focus ground cloth.
RF: Imagine focusing 200 or 300 lights with gobos and shutters in broad daylight with two teams. It's the lighting equivalent of the Tower of Babel. If you saw it, you'd wonder how anything is ever right. It's very labor-intensive as the labor is here. It's also worth noting that the apprentices are paid…
DS: …better paid now than 10 years ago.
RF: Some of the technical apprentices are sponsored by donors who would rather sponsor a person than a chair in the auditorium. It's a great way to train people in all the craft areas. The students sometimes meet their sponsors. Santa Fe really understands training and what goes into making a production.
DS: It's one of the reasons to work here, a sense of excitement.
RF: And respect — a great deal of which is due to Paul Horpedahl, the director of production. He's brilliant. He hires good staff and has excellent heads of all departments, plus a very good stage-management team.
DS: Most operas are in a major urban area. This is the only place where you can cue an opera with a desert wind blowing. We are often in the building from 10am, when we watch rehearsals. The focus is from 6pm to 8pm, and we start cueing at 9pm until midnight, when there is an event called “The Grey Lady,” a catered meal, after three hours at the tech table, and 75 to 100 people stream out of the theatre to where the meal is. We mingle for a while and go back to work until 2:30am, the end of cueing.
RF: No one remembers why the meal is called that — lost in the mist of time. Everyone is there, except the performers. We leave at 3am after notes.
DS: The electrics crew is in the ceiling the whole time. At 2:30am, they pull all the color so it doesn't blow away. The gels are clipped in, but even with that, they can blow away. They recolor in the late afternoon in the roof — the catwalk system — so when you start rehearsing at 6pm, the color and gobos are all in place.
RF: The outdoor conditions, even protected, are tough. Wind, rain blowing horizontally, dry dusty mountain landscape — not good conditions for complicated moving lights. And the coves were designed before that technology was readily available.
DS: We have the people, so it is not an issue to get a special or new color…
RF: …in less time than a programmer can call up the fixture library.
DS: The reality is the opera world is slow on the uptake with moving lights.
RF: Santa Fe has a large inventory of HMIs and large-format Fresnels to cater to the tastes of a lot of European designers.
DS: Big fixtures are great for diagonal backs but lack a big range of focus in the coves due to their size.
RF: Here, shows even by the same designer look different. We relight with a lot of specials.
DS: If a light is very specific, you hang a special and red flag it to make sure no one else touches it.
RF: It's too hard to make it perfect again in daylight. LEDs are useful for special effects — good for trim, lighting an edge. In limited space, they are great.
DS: The problem with LEDs is that they don't give you good color…
DS: Yet — against a white wall, they look okay, but put them against skin tones and fabric, and they look terrible. The Selador seven-color version is getting there. We use them a lot architecturally, but in the theatre, you always have the space and the staff. Lighting a show is not the largest energy consumer, like lobby lighting and air conditioning.
RF: Increasingly, it will be more important, but the best color rendering still comes from an incandescent lamp, which is why, Duane, you and I have them in our homes.
DS: Desmond Healy once asked me what happened to the “friendly lights.” That was the year we switched from tungsten to quartz halogen, a brighter, bluer light by a minimal amount, but he could feel it. Even color-corrected, it's not the same. You don't have the incandescent warmth. You add a little pink or a little amber.
RF: You can't add what's not there.
DS: Over the next 10 years, the opera world has to make some major changes to stay current, not just in lighting. I hope there isn't a “typical” opera rig. In Europe, there are more big lights and fewer systems on stage.
RF: Many opera houses are labor cost-driven, so they should be embracing automated technology.
DS: Moving lights give you a lot more design options, but I'm not sure they save time or labor.
RF: Pure lighting sessions are a thing of the past, going the way of the dodo. Schedules are squeezed, so we light during rehearsals.
DF: You have to be able to work in the moment rather than taking notes and having a four-hour work call the next day.
RF: It's better to light the singers than have the stage manager standing there.
DS: I like the initial tech, where you get the major cues. The director doesn't know what they are doing at that point. It's like a lighting build rehearsal.
RF: You get the language but not all of the grammar. Going back to Santa Fe, I don't see a lot of changes here, as many changes are labor-driven, and that is not a problem here. They have their own house agreement but no union stagehands.
DS: Jumping back, after the eight apprentices, the next layer of people includes the three lighting supervisors, the head of lighting, two master electricians, and five follow spot operators.
RF: In Santa Fe, they are blessed in that people come back year after year and dovetail with new people. Caroline Chao was an apprentice, a board operator, a lighting supervisor, and now head of lighting. She was also the lighting director at the Houston Grand Opera.
DS: If you do a survey of people with Santa Fe Opera on their resumes, 40 to 50% of the people you meet in the opera world have been here. We have three or four in the Schuler Shook office.
RF: It's about working with people here. Because it's residential, they live together in an apartment building that the opera owns, and all the departments work together. The opera is one of the top employers in the summer. The opera was always very visionary. Even to saving water for the gardens.
DS: The opera owns the view, as there are height restrictions past the ridge out behind the opera. John Crosby really was a visionary.
RF: The quality training here is recognized at all levels. It is scheduled and supported. Maybe it happens by osmosis elsewhere.
DS: We do a design review with the apprentices, talk to them about portfolio review. All the shops do that. That is one of the reasons why people who come through here end up in the business, or they realize they don't want to be in the business at all.