How Sweet It Is: Dulce Rosa

Photo Yael Pardess

Dulce Rosa is an original opera premiered at the Santa Monica Broad Stage in June in collaboration with the LA Opera (LAO). The opera’s set design concept relied on continuous projections to create a transformation between locations, a fluidity that set and lighting changes alone would not give. The mood and environment of each scene were carefully stylized to fit the music and story. Additionally, by giving form and color to the heroes’ minds, another dimension was achieved.  

The design served two purposes: a theatrical set serving the story and staging, as well as a blank canvas for the seamless flow of projected imagery. The result was a rich live experience blending theatre, music, film, and art.

I first explored this design concept during a previous collaboration with Richard Sparks (director, librettist) and Jenny Okun (projection designer) for a production of the opera Don Giovanni. When approaching the design for Dulce Rosa, I knew that I wanted to explore this concept further.

Photo Yael Pardess

The projected images were Okun’s personal artistic collages made up of photos she took in South America and Europe in preparation for this project—gorgeous and evocative but two-dimensional and rectangular. The challenge was to come up with a set design consisting of multiple projection surfaces that would add depth to the projected images while also visually representing the story’s mood and its locations. The shape of the flats would have to be part of the same language of the images instead of clashing with them. Taking into account that the collages were already quite stylized and fragmented, a simple flat shape would work best. Each photo, or a segment from it, would have to be carefully positioned on a selected surface. Stage set configuration was crucial to ensure accessible lighting positions for the actors and avoidance of the flats. Set changes were minimal so the design had to be powerful yet simple and allow for projection transformations which would not detract from the actors’ performances.

Design Process And Choices

When setting out to create the preliminary design, the performance venue was unknown. The objective, therefore, was to convey a general design concept which would be approved by the LAO.

The preliminary design consisted of two main arched walls facing the audience. Each wall had a large window with a sliding panel that could be used to represent a location within the story, a window into a character’s mind, or be closed to create a solid wall. One window was the portal through which Rosa’s dead father appears so its position in relation to the set was important. The two walls, the floor, windows, and drapes would all become projection surfaces. I used image segments from Okun’s vast photo collection for the many illustrations and set compositions for the first act. These illustrations, along with music from the first act and a selection of Okun’s original collages, were presented to LAO and Eli Broad general director Placido Domingo, his wife, opera director Marta Domingo, and the LA Opera staff.

Photo Yael Pardess

Once Dulce Rosa was approved, I set out to create the final design. I kept the main concept from the first illustrations and modified it to fit the Broad Stage. I added a large curved staircase to allow for flow, depth, and various locations. Unfortunately the projected floor idea from the initial concept had to go. I was counting on the LD to provide floor lighting textures. There were several other flying shaped flats and scrims to create various locations. Some flats would be printed elements because projections could not reach them.

As we progressed with the design, many of the moving parts were cut (much to my chagrin) but all with a single purpose: to tell the story through images only, stay minimal, and not be distracting. I tested each angle and each arched wall more times than I care to admit and created a Google SketchUp model to check projection reach and modified walls accordingly to avoid dead areas. The two main walls were front-projected with one projector each from a fixed booth. The rear projection screen and its two projectors’ placement dictated the size of the image. Every angle and placement had to be very precise to get a maximum image size and brightness.

Photo Yael Pardess

Very early on, I saw that the actors would not have an upstage passage because of the restricted backstage space, our need to locate the RP screen projectors, and the constant images projected on the RP screen. We tried some alterations, but our director understood the space limitations and instead modified his staging, for which I was thankful. After years of designing sets, I realized, yet again, that a simple set is not necessarily an easy set to design.

Media Creation

Once the set was approved and plans were drafted, Okun and I spent many days pouring over images and designing the flow of the show, running everything by Sparks. The projected images were stylized, collaged, fragmented, or abstract so they could convey real locations, enhanced realism, and emotion. It was imperative to select images, compose them, time projection with the music, and create a tableau that would suit each scene yet still flow as a whole.

The first step was to browse through the many images and decide which ones belonged to which scene, basically creating a storyboard and a visual theme for each scene. This process was similar to choosing movie locations and making visual style choices. Only when this was organized could we start designing the imagery and flow within each scene.

Photo Yael Pardess

Originally, I wanted to explore some moving video, as well. I like more complex animation and had my own ideas, but eventually, we used static images with fades and dissolves and stayed true to Okun’s art. I also explored darkening and feathering some of the images at the flats’ edges so that they would not all be framed precisely the same as the flats. After many discussions, however, the feathering was ruled out, and we adjusted the darkness or saturation in order to get a better focus. Some scenes contained several images, while others had fewer changes.

We worked through every scene, image by image, discovering the color, texture, and feeling of each moment, always questioning what the image was telling us about the story, the emotion, and the atmosphere. I could describe the lengthy process for choosing each image and color, but that could fill another page. The style of the transition was mostly dissolves and fades from one image to the next. Once this was accomplished, Okun created a Final Cut Pro video with music, separate boards showing each scene’s final composition, and detailed timeline documents for the projection staff at the LA Opera. The whole collaboration process with Okun was thoroughly enjoyable, and I crossed my fingers that the concept would work. The amazing LAO technical staff, led by technical director Jeff Kleeman and production media manager Alisa Lapidus, supported us through every step.

Our gear included an MA Lighting grandMA2 console, two Green Hippo Hippotizer HD media servers, two Christie Digital 18K HD projectors for the rear projection-0.8 lenses, and two Barco 18K HD projectors for the front projection-1.2 zoom lenses.

Lighting Challenges

The main challenge with a projection-based design is that the projected image is the main storyteller and replaces a large percent of the lighting design. The Dulce Rosa set was off-limits for lighting. The set walls were plain, untextured light beige. Any light spill would kill the effect and the image. Lighting designer Anne Militello could only light the actors, the floor, interior window alcoves, and steps to complement the imagery with colors and textures. The opera took us to many realistic locations and to the emotional world of the main characters. How could the projection and lighting work in tandem to achieve these transformations?

Militello knew that this was not going to be an easy task. The Broad Stage is of a medium size. Many lines were occupied by the stage’s permanent equipment. She had to become a master of precision with available lighting positions in order to stay away from the set walls. I designed the set layout hoping that it would give her enough workable positions and modified some set parts to accommodate her needs.

Photo Yael Pardess

Militello used several hundred ETC Source Four ellipsoidals of varying degrees, Source Four PAR XWFLs, Philips Vari-Lite VL1000 ERS (Tungsten) units and VL500s, Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12s, Robert Juliat FLO units, SeaChanger Tungsten color changers, and Altman Lighting Zip Strips to make the best use of a small space and restricted angles. She complemented some scenes by creating gobo textures for the floor, and selected colors and textures to match/contrast the images and complement the palette. Some equipment still created ghost spills on the set, and she worked diligently to avoid them whenever possible in the short tech time. The success of the design concept depended on her.  

Costume designer Durinda Wood was also very involved with the colors of our projection palette and created rich realistic period costumes that stood out in the midst of the projected backgrounds.

Installation And Relief

When the first images were tested on the blank walls, I breathed a sigh of relief. It worked, and it was magical. All that was needed was image masking, blending, timing, and lighting, and of course, making it all happen in the provided tech time.

We discovered that going to black on all walls or even just one wall was not possible because any light spill from the orchestra pit killed the magic and showed the gray walls. Some images and sequences therefore had to be modified. The opening of each act had to be choreographed precisely with the orchestra and house lights so that, as the curtain rose, no blank gray flats were seen. In one instance, a bright costume had to be covered with a scarf because it created a light bounce that killed the image on a flat. Many images had to be color-adjusted by Okun to compensate for light spills. Actors could not stand too close to the flats, and our director moved them accordingly. The set design provided a wide acting space at the center so that most of these issues could be avoided.

Photo Yael Pardess

Staging, voices, music, and visuals came together to create a unique production. Overall the press and audiences were very complimentary of the show and its visual richness. I felt we had achieved our vision, and I am inspired to explore this concept further in future productions. Opera is the perfect vehicle, but any production with a good story (and a budget) will do. I am most grateful to have been part this visual adventure.  

Yael Pardess is a production and media designer specializing in immersive show design for theatres, museums experiences, and theme parks in the US and worldwide. See more of her work.