San Diego’s La Boheme, Part II: Passion In The Parking Lot

(San Diego Opera, La Bohème, photo by Karli Cadel)

In late October/early November, San Diego Opera presented La Bohème in the parking lot at Pechanga Arena San Diego, inviting their audience to "Leave Your World In The Rearview Mirror," and enjoy opera at the drive-in, while ensuring everyone’s safety and security. A successful pandemic pivot for the company, which is planning more drive-in productions in the future, there were a few challenges along the way. Lighting designer Chris Rynne takes us into the parking lot for a look at a production that was met with honking horns and flashing lighting as the audience showed its appreciation.

Live Design: What were the challenges of designing for people sitting in their cars, looking through a windshield?

Chris Rynne: The venue is located just a block from the Pacific Ocean and the first couple of evenings we had out there for setup/rehearsal there was a heavy marine layer that saturated the area. While I was initially excited that the marine layer made for a nice, natural haze to enhance the show visuals (AGMA, the union the opera singers, directors, stage managers, and musicians belong to, bans most hazers from stage use these days), it made for some challenges those evenings including making the stage slippery, heavily diffusing the ETC Source Four fill frontlight, and depositing a layer of condensation on the lighting consoles. 

In terms of the cars, a couple of the staff vehicles parked in the lot with us had their windshields covered in constant droplets, making us wonder if audiences were going to have to continuously run their wipers during the show.  Fortunately, from first dress rehearsal through the rest of the run, San Diego was hit with a dry spell, so while I lost my haze the change in weather saved us from so many issues we were threatened with early in the process.  Otherwise, I knew that there was a video crew providing live coverage of the show that was presented on large trailer-mounted video screens (two at 10'x17' and four at 8'x14') placed throughout the parking lot so people in the middle and the back of the lot could see the action. While the windshield aspect of the presentation viewing wasn't ultimately a big concern for me, I was very interested in making sure that the VIPs situated in the front section near the stage, which didn't have video screens with program feeds, looked good and balanced with the lighting needs for those primarily watching on the video screens further back.

Photo: Karli Cadel

LD: How did you work on sightlines?

CR: For the audience cars situated in the front section I worked with the director, Keturah Stickann, and the singers to make sure that viewing angles from the cars and for the cameras were optimized. The audience members placed further back benefited from the large video screens getting them closer to the action and, in some cases, making up for their view being partially blocked by the FOH camera riser at center near the stage and the genie/truss tower, where my FOH leko fills were hung, located just behind that riser.

LD: Please discuss the use of color in the lighting...

CR: Keturah had the challenge of staging a meaningful production of La Bohème while following AGMA's guidelines regarding social distancing between cast members. In order to create meaningful interactions between characters without them touching or ever coming into close contact she directed this production as a memory piece centered around the central male character, Rodolfo. That meant that all of the other characters onstage were ghosts/figments. In order to accomplish the separation of Rodolofo from the others, he was always anchored in relatively natural, neutral tones and the others were tinted in hues I find to be a bit more ghostly.... usually something more in steely or minty tones. At times when Rodolfo would immerse himself fully in the memories and relive the moments more fully, the lighting on other characters were warmed up a bit to temporarily bring them into his world. 

The most challenging places in the show to maintain these rules were in the "close" interaction of Rodolfo and Mimi in his study. We didn't have the budget for followspots or spot operators so we weren't able to just keep a light following a character in a specific color.... I juggled lighting shots and fading in and out colors as the singers moved to smoothly maintain the color story without distracting from the storytelling.

The video team joined us after our single tech rehearsal and from then on I was balancing texture, color and levels to not only make the stage look good up close but also make sure the color story read well on video. I found myself splitting my time between eyeing the stage and eyeing the monitor showing me all of the possible camera shots the video director could choose from at any time, making adjustments as needed.  We also did a number of white balance sessions with the video team over the course of rehearsals to make sure we all stayed on the same page.

Photo: Karli Cadel

LD: What were the major differences from lighting an opera in an indoor theatre?

CR: The biggest difference is the lack of dark time we were afforded to write the show. Typically when lighting opera at a regional company with an indoor theatre you'll sit at the tech table during the day, scenery and light walkers onstage, your programmer, the director and stage manager with you at the table, and work your way methodically through lighting the show. In this case, not only did we have the usual constraint that comes with outdoor theatre where we have to wait until dark to evaluate and adjust any blind daytime programming work but budget constraints restricted my lighting time with the rig outside of actual rehearsal to dimmer check time and about fifteen minutes between end of a rehearsal and the time to shut down the system and walk away. This is very unlike a lot of outdoor productions where one might get a couple of hours each night after the rehearsal to work on cueing and lighting adjustments. Using the new Augment3d visualization module found in ETC's latest EOS software was an essential tool that allowed me to program rough drafts of all of the cues and show my design intent to the director prior to evening rehearsals. 

While I missed having midnight lighting sessions, the visualizer as well as the excellent lighting crew at SDO (and ShowTec, the AVL vendor) gave me the support I needed in order to get everything done well in a tight timeline. I feel quite fortunate that I was able to be part of such as special production at such an uncertain time.  Hopefully what we did serves as inspiration for others to keep up hope and find ways to bring the community together in safe ways while we all get through this pandemic. 

Read about Ross Goldman’s sound design: San Diego's La Boheme, Part I: Arias On The Airwaves

San Diego Opera - Drive-in presentation of La Boheme, 2020

Lighting Equipment


  •  1 ETC [email protected] 24k output, running EOS software and Augment3d model for visualization
  •  1 ETC ION XE 12k output, running EOS software and Augment3d model for visualization.
  •  1  MacBook Pro 13" with additional monitors, running EOS Nomad for additional Augment3d visualization views
  •  1  24" video monitor showing feeds from all video production team cameras
  •  1 ETC Net3 2-port touring DMX gateway
  •  1 W-DMX transmitter and receiver kit
  •  1 TMB ProPlex 2x8 rackmount DMX/RDM opto splitter
  •  1  ETC Sensor SP48 touring rack with 48x2.4kw dimmers



  •  1 ETC ColorSource Spot Deep Blue 14 degree
  •  1 ETC ColorSource Spot Deep Blue 26 degree
  • 28 Color Kinetics Color Blast 12 with 750R power supplies
  • 18 Elation ELAR 180PAR RGBAW
  •  7 Elation Color Chorus 72"


  • 11  ETC 10 degree Source Four Ellipsoidal 750w
  • 13  ETC PARNel 750w
  •  6 GAM Mini 10 flood 150w


Lighting, video, and staging provided by ShowTec

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