In this first publication in Entertainment Technology Press Design Series, John Offord describes the making of the production from the lighting designer’s viewpoint - taking the story through from the point where director Jürgen Flimm made his decision not to use scenery or sets and simply employ the expertise of Patrick Woodroffe.
In addition to technical information for this production, first performed in the Vienna State Opera House in December 2001, there is detailed background information on the venue itself, the story of the opera in an historical context and information on costumes, etc. Along with production pictures, there is an important section with numerous colour photographs by Ralph Larmann showing the various lighting scenes. Also included are post-show press reports and the biographies of those involved in bringing about a highly successful landmark production.
Anyone setting out to create a library devoted solely to books on stage lighting would not have to find very large premises; an old-fashioned red telephone box would
probably do it. And most of the books in the library would be ones aimed at the relative newcomer to lighting rather than the seasoned professional, offering a broad
overview and basic techniques rather than an in-depth study of some particular aspect of the art or its practitioners.
Entertainment Technology Press has set out to change this, using ‘print on demand’ technology to lower the cost of publication and make more specialised titles
economically possible. A recent addition to the ambitious range it has planned is a detailed study of a single design: Patrick Woodroffe’s lighting for Roméo et Juliette
at the Vienna State Opera.
The project is certainly unusual enough to justify this close attention. It was the first production of Gounoud’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s play at the Vienna
State Opera since 1918; it was Woodroffe’s first fully staged opera; it was the first production at the Vienna State Opera to be staged without scenery, using only light.
The later two points are linked. Director Jürgen Flimm asked Patrick Woodroffe to light the production after deciding that, as with the original productions of
Shakespeare’s play, there should be only a bare stage with no set. Woodroffe’s work was familiar to Flimm from a rock concert that he had designed, and Woodroffe was
attracted to the project by the idea of using light as scenery, as well as to illuminate the performers, in an operatic context. And this is why the project, and the book, is interesting. Woodroffe’s design draws on his substantial experience as a concert lighting designer and brings to bear a rock and roll aesthetic onto this in some
ways quite intimate opera. What is also clear, but not explicitly stated in the book, is that the design also references a long tradition of light-as-scenery that goes back through designers such as Max Keller and Josef Svoboda, to pioneers such as Edward Gordon Craig. Indeed, in this sense Woodroffe’s work is less original than the
book claims; his use of light to create, shape and define space, as well as to illuminate the performers and their environment, is familiar from the work of the Great Names but also from all those of us who have toiled in black box studios and on budget-impaired main stages to fill the void with light and shade to create a world from air thickened only with a little haze.
What is unusual, at least in the context of a production mounted by a major opera house, is the absence of a set designer. The book’s claim that the production has no
scenery is a little disingenuous; the stage space itself, together with the mobile lighting towers and the use of the lighting bridges at different heights during the
performance, all constitute set elements – it is just that they are designed and controlled by the LD and the Director. This creates a changed dynamic within the
creative process, a dynamic that the book reveals in glimpses rather than by addressing it full on.
The format of the book is unusual; part of it reads as a conventional text on the production, but the book also contains a substantial amount of additional
“unprocessed” material such as brief biographies of the project’s protagonists, press reviews, technical plans and lists, and an assortment of photographs and
drawings. Some of this, such as Woodroffe’s “back of an envelope” early sketches, is fascinating, while material such as luminaire manufacturer’s technical
specifications seems to be included for no better reason than because it was available.
There are some 24-carat nuggets, such as the exchange between Woodroffe and the show’s Director, Jürgen Flimm: Flimm: “Mr. Woodroffe, I think there is
a mistake!” Woodroffe: “No, Herr Flimm, there is a possibility of improvement!”
However, there are also some missed opportunities: the show was comprehensively photographed through the production process, and many of these
images appear in the book. Rather than showing Woodroffe’s storyboard sketches and the photos in separate chapters, placing them together on the page would
have more clearly shown the development of the design from concept to stage.
In spite of these quibbles, this is a worthwhile book that offers the reader an insight into an intriguing project. The Entertainment Technology Press is to be
applauded for bringing innovation to the literature of lighting design.
Nick Hunt, Focus