Tuesday, May 7, 2013

CONNIE YUN Explores New Lighting Technologies

Connie Yun has been working on the lighting of Seattle Opera productions ever since Ring 3 began catching opera-lovers’ eyes a dozen years ago. As Lighting Designer for our current double-bill, she chose to light La Voix Humaine entirely with new LED fixtures and projections, and to light Suor Angelica with more traditional tungsten-halogen incandescent lights. This ingenious and resourceful artist told me a little about the new technologies available to today’s lighting designer—and how she uses these technologies to reach her goal, which is theatrical story-telling.

Connie, how did this unusual dual-technology lighting situation come about for this double-bill?
We’ve been working with LED lights for some years now; we first bought fixtures for Don Giovanni in 2007, and perhaps you remember the pyramids of The Magic Flute in 2011. For this double-bill, we thought, what if we distinguished between the two pieces, one more modern and one more traditional, by applying this new technology to La Voix Humaine? After all, it’s an intimate, one-person show which afforded us the freedom to experiment.

Seattle Opera's 2011 Magic Flute, Lighting Design by Duane Schuler
Rozarii Lynch, photo

What equipment did you end up using?
Because the technology is changing so rapidly, Assistant Lighting Designer Amiya Brown worked with Richard Carlson, President and CEO of PNTA (Pacific Northwest Theatrical Associates) to put together a rental package for this production. That way Seattle Opera was able to use some of the newest fixtures without investing in technology which will rapidly become obsolete. Specifically, for La Voix Humaine we’re using five ETC SourceFour LED Lustr+ lights and three Vari*Lite VLX3 moving lights. Plus our Barco projectors and some additional arc source moving lights to highlight the furniture, the bathroom, and her hallway.

Nuccia Focile stars in La Voix Humaine, lit with LED lights by Connie Yun
Elise Bakketun, photo

How are the new LED lights different from good old-fashioned incandescents?
As you probably know from buying light bulbs at the grocery store, lighting everywhere is shifting away from incandescent tungsten. LED lights are electroluminescent, using electrical current to excite electrons and release energy as photons. Now, some people don’t particularly like the new LED or the compact fluorescent lights; I even know people who have hoarded and stashed old tungsten incandescent bulbs because they prefer that quality of light. You might compare them to people who prefer listening to recorded music on vinyl instead of digital compact discs.

Unlike incandescent light, which emits a light with a high color rendering index, LED only gives you a narrow wavelength range of light at a time. The high-end new LED equipment gets around this limitation by mixing a higher number of colors. Some of the lights we rented from PNTA, for example, use Red, Green, Blue, Amber, Indigo, Cyan, and White LED’s, or combinations of those seven colors. (Although, don’t think that LED White is truly white—it’s often a blue LED light filtered through a yellow phosphor coating.)

Each of the new fixtures is more expensive than traditional theatrical lights, but there are cost savings. Since an LED fixture can change colors, you don’t need to work with gels and you don’t need to hang as many fixtures. The same LED fixture can illuminate a cool night-time scene and then a bright daylight scene. So we spend less time climbing up and down ladders and more time programming the computers! The fixtures don’t emit as much heat, which ends up affecting heating and cooling costs in the building, not to mention the comfort of the performers. And they seem more efficient, in terms of electricity use: the maximum wattage draw of a Source Four LED fixture is 130 watts, compared to 750 watts for a conventional tungsten fixture. (Or, comparing lumens per watt, the LED fixture scores 31.7 lpw to tungsten’s 18.3 lpw.)

So is this new technology going to take over lighting grids at opera companies worldwide?
If it helps us do our job, which is, after all, telling the story. A day may be coming when we can invest fully in this technology, but we learned something interesting: it’s not bright enough, yet. We deal with huge distances in big American opera houses: we may be throwing light 40-100 feet instead of the 18-30 feet you need to project in a smaller theater. With La Voix Humaine we were able to make that work, since this is an intimate one-person show taking place in a small space. But it might not work so well with a bigger opera.

It occurs to me that these LED lights might be very useful if you were producing opera in a repertory situation, where you had different operas each night. With the LEDs, you can cut down on the number of fixtures—those repertory house lighting grids get crowded!—and still have a full range of colors.

It seemed to me you worked very hard on lighting La Voix Humaine. Almost every time I peeked into rehearsal, you were there, taking notes.
It’s such a personal story—so much in that opera depends on the singer and the director, they have to make it up in rehearsals. Being with them in rehearsal helped me gain empathy for the character in Voix, because—to be honest—I didn’t at first approach her with a great deal of sympathy. Post-feminism, it’s easy to shake your head and wonder, “What the hell is wrong with this woman?” It can be challenging for modern women to relate to such a character.

On the other hand, this is a very moving, human story about heartbreak and the loss of identity. Everyone wants to be loved. And it can be hard to find yourself again, after a breakup. For me, the rehearsal process helped me connect to the character Nuccia Focile has created and care deeply about her.

Nuccia Focile in La Voix Humaine; Lighting by Connie Yun
Elise Bakketun, photo

She looks so beautiful, in the light you’ve given her.
Yes, and her follow-spot is an LED light! Many people can’t tell the difference. We found a color that worked well for Nuccia’s skin tone, and that striking purple negligĂ©e, and we turn it on her as soon as she gets up from the bed at the beginning of the opera.

Now tell us about the little Cocteau image she sketches, before she gets up from that bed.
Right, Cocteau drew that image himself. Chris Reay [Associate Technical Director] animated it by taking just the line drawing, recording the image of the drawing being erased step by step, and then playing the video backwards so it is drawn instead of erased. We project that animation with one of our Barco projectors.

From Seattle Opera's La Voix Humaine
Elise Bakketun, photo

Incidentally, those Barcos also project the wallpaper and the carpet. Chris and I were studying Cocteau’s films and we noticed that he often uses interesting wallpaper, in Les enfants terribles or Orpheus. So we found some vintage wallpaper, scaled it up so it’s a bit surreal—bigger than you would find in a real hotel room—and we project that on the wall and the floor. When you’re projecting, it’s best to come at your surface on a perpendicular, which means the Barcos that project the pattern on the floor are hanging directly overhead, from the line sets. Each projector weighs 110 pounds—it’s a good thing we built a sturdy housing for them!


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