Collective Media For Tristan Und Isolde, Part 1: The Lighting

When developing Seattle Opera’s latest production of Tristan und Isolde, director Peter Kazaras remembered a conversation he had with Leonard Bernstein in 1971. They had just seen the Günther Schneider-Siemssen and August Everding production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He and Bernstein

discussed that “written into the fabric of this piece is uncertainty, upset-ness, yearning, constitutional ill-at-ease-ness.”

For the new production, Kazaras, along with set and costume designer Robert Israel and lighting designer Duane Schuler, embraced the spirit of Bernstein’s “uncertainty.” Forgoing the traditional lush, realistic rendering of the ship and forest, Kazaras and his design team “wanted a much cleaner landscape,” he says. The Seattle Opera production of Tristan und Isolde surprised the audience with a new way of seeing the opera by exploring the “idea of stretching and expanding the time in the moment before death.”

Though this was their first collaboration as a team, Schuler, Israel, and Kazaras have long been fans of each others’ work. Kazaras says of the work that it was “really like a sculpture; it kind of came to life under their hands. [I] saw it take palpable shape.”

According to Israel, the production was set in a timeless situation where the props were visible from the beginning of the show. The underpinning of the set was the 2006 Seattle Opera production of Macbeth, also designed by Israel. The set was foreshortened from its original ground plan, allowing the addition of three steps downstage to get to what had been the middle of the raked stage. This allowed for even more planes of activity than Kazaras had originally thought possible.

One of the most discussed elements of the set was a red cord cutting through the middle of the stage. The color red was deeply important, representing the “blood, viscera, humanity at the core of everything,” says Kazaras, who adds that the stage was scattered with packages, one of which was also red, symbolizing that “in the heart of the stuff of our lives, there is always a pulsing visceral mass of feeling.”

From the red cord hung a curtain that separated the different layers of reality, a physical manifestation of Kazaras’ idea of “striving and yearning to get to another plane of existence…[which] is absolutely composed into the fabric of this piece.” The curtain’s physical presence allowed for a progression through multiple layers of existence. The sparseness achieved the director’s ultimate goal that the audience had to “focus on these two people in a way that was extremely unusual for Tristan.”

From the beginning of the design process, digital media was set to be part of the production. Kazaras knew that, in balancing the sparseness with the magic, the introduction of the projections could be a challenge for Schuler, but he also notes, “Whatever mad world we were going for, Duane would be able to come up with the solution, which would really make a visual statement with the light.”

In this production, Schuler, with associate LD Connie Yun, was able to use all in-house equipment because of Seattle Opera’s extensive inventory. The lighting rig consists of 24 Martin Professional moving lights—a mix of MAC 2000 Performance, Profile, and Wash units—six ARRI HMI Fresnels, and a variety of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, PAR64s, L&E cyc units, and Wybron Coloram scrollers, with control via an MA Lighting grandMA and an ETC Obsession II.

Schuler used two non-traditional sources in the show, as well. The first was the only LED element used, a 50'-long strip of Philips Color Kinetics iColor Cove set into the middle of a 6" truss beyond the opening in the set, in front of the large rear projection screen that could change angle or move up and down. Covered in a heavy frost, the iColor Cove provided a full range of color-changing capabilities along an uninterrupted line. Although it ended up not moving from the audience’s perspective, it served as a lit blue line in Act Two and a strong black silhouette in front of the projections when not illuminated. Another source, an E-Lite Technologies Flat Light, was also built into the scenery. “We had a red strip and a white strip that were mounted on the upstage edge of one of the wrapped packages in Act Two,” says Schuler.

Kazaras was inspired in part by Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” in addressing what he sees as two kinds of time in the opera: everyday time and Tristan time. As in Plato, so in Tristan, “All we see are our own shadows reflected upon a rock by a fire,” Kazaras says. This served as a profound jumping off point for the incorporation of the projections. The intention was not to be able to tell there was digital imagery but to create a texture, as in the image of a billowing curtain playing on top of an identical, but still, actual curtain. It is, as Israel says, an ephemeral world, where “shadows disintegrate.”

The exploration and design process was completely supported by the technical staff at Seattle Opera, under the technical direction of Robert Schaub. “That shop is so fantastic,” says Israel, “that the production wasn’t limited by the technical challenges.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 about the projection…

Natalie Robin is a NYC-based lighting designer who designs theatre, opera, dance, music, and performance art. She is a founding and associate company member of Polybe + Seats and an associate artist of Target Margin Theatre. She is also an adjunct faculty member in NYU’s Department of Undergraduate Drama. This season, she is designing Second Language with Target Margin, Mozart’s Mitridate with little Opera Theatre of New York, and touring with Miguel Gutierrez.

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