It certainly doesn’t seem very easy to get one’s hands on literature concerning the theory of lighting in opera production. Why this is, is not completely clear. Prima facie, light contributes to the visual sensation induce by the performance just as the orchestral pieces composed to move us through the auditory sense. Yet there is a much stricter recipe for the nature of the auditory stimulus than for lighting, which is especially confusing, if one considers that it is well within reason to weight the visual stimulus on exactly the same par as the auditory; and one might argue for some small amount of privilege for the visual medium. My reason for thinking so is that, in my experience, the visual conveys a tremendous amount of information to the viewer, and even contributes to the mood, which I take to be the central function of the musical arrangement. Moreover, based on my (by no means extensive) experience in the opera, my impression is that there may be some ill-gotten understanding of what opera is, in and among the folks working on the productions. My concern is that some productions may be treating opera as a somewhat inconvenient marriage of orchestra and theatre, which would be a shame if so. In the following, I would to explain why I feel this might be the case, and further the importance that I see light composition as playing in the opera. It should be noted that I see this lack of consistent and proper treatment of lighting as suggesting that there has been a mishandling of opera as an inconvenient and merely circumstantial (common law?) marriage of orchestra and stage play.
To address the issue of how productions tend to approach any given opera, as far as lighting is concerned, let us consider what it is that lighting does in most theatrical performances. My opinion is that I have seen it do little or nothing in plays. Now, my experience is largely limited in this forum to Shakespeare, being so much a fan of his; and I would say that, roughly, ninety percent of all theatre I have seen has been Shakespearean (or from the Elizabethan period, including Marlowe). Nonetheless, there is, even in the more modern theatre, a lack of usage of light. I think the reason is fairly straightforward, though I know next to nothing about theatre theory: much of what we see in theatre doesn’t need conveying through light, other than to see what is going on, that is, we just need plain old white light. I have given this some thought, and my proposal is that theatre tends to be much more in the rational tradition, in the sense that abstraction and practical information is most of what is at stake. Many of the emotive plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, achieve what they do by hopeful expectation (sated in romances, dashed in tragedies), not sensuous imposition upon the audience. In fact, the rational viewer of Romeo and Juliet has the option of thinking, “you dumb young kids, you!” (and Shakespeare/Bacon, ever the philosophical trickster, may very well have had this option in mind, making it such that the whole play occurs in two days’ time). A friend of mine, cognitive scientist Greg Cox, recently remarked, “There is something that is ridiculous about all opera,” which made me ponder how it was that he seemed correct, and this last point about Romeo and Juliet is precisely how theatric and operatic love stories (and tragedies) differ. In the opera, one has no such choice —no rational choice, that is—, because the opera is about inundating the senses to induce a feeling, and, when the opera is produced with the minimum efficacy, this induction is undeniable, irresistible —consequently ridiculous, rationally speaking, as my friend correctly noted. The opera is about sensuous experience, which is to create an existential state within each member of the audience. Once more, in the Shakespearean vein, consider productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the scenes (involving mythos and characters like Puck) tend to introduce otherworldly hues. The function of doing this is to get the audience to assume a feel for the mythical in these settings. Other than a few of these scenes among a narrow collection plays, most of theatre seems to approach the rational or the emotions through the rational —consider Hume in relation to Aristotle’s notion of purgation—, discussing political ideas (particularly present in modern theatre, especially at colleges), religious ideas, philosophical views and concepts, or simply telling stories. Opera, by contrast, is about the existentiality of the viewer and his or her beingness-not-apart-from-the-performance and the sensual nature of the induced as such.
For anyone who has watched an opera like Die Fledermaus or Wagner’s Des Ring der Nibelungen on DVD, there is an obvious direction to this. These operas, obviously, were not performed with the kind of hues and lighting techniques that, in my opinion, truly distinguish and make the opera. If it is not clear, permit this question: How many operas have you read in book form, and how many theatres have you read in book form? Even for those who have not seen a Shakespearean play, I would be willing to bet that the individual has read one. The same cannot be said about individuals never having attended the opera, but why is that? I argue that there is a link between the non-existence of operas in book form (except for those books/stories turned into operas) and the disappointing nature of watching opera on DVD (though I do not discourage it, if that is one’s only avenue). To create a book out of an opera, one does not simply perform mimetic ekphrasis on the opera; one can only abstract from the opera, creating little more than a metaphor that alienates the individual familiar with opera. Whether moving the opera from the organic living, breathing-ness of it on stage to either film or book means losing the qualia that is so centrally important to opera, and, without it, the asemic kernel is not there. My personal opinion is that light composition, regardless of the techniques used, establishes a metaphysical unity of all parts, orchestral arrangement, block, singing, and so forth. The opera is an organic whole, it is autopoietic, while the works of theatre are synthesize out of parts and rationally constructed in the mind of the viewer, which is to say, not metaphysically bound together.
The problem, as I see it, with many operas is that the use of light fails to establish that minimum efficacy requirement, thereby failing to establish the metaphysical foundation that distinguishes opera from theatre. Die Fledermaus (on DVD, sorry, I can’t remember the production company) and Pittsburgh Opera’s 2010-2011 production of The Barber of Seville, though both were moderately enjoyable, are fine examples of the failure to use proper light compositions. Operas on DVD tend to be poor in essence, because, if the lighting is satisfactory for the opera qua opera, it necessarily is unacceptable for filming; and if the lighting is such that the opera can be filmed, the opera simply ceases to be. Among the best examples of the lighting composition receiving the appropriate attention have been: Pittsburgh Opera’s 2010-2011 Falstaff, Indiana University Bloomington’s 2012-2013 Don Giovanni (especially when Giovanni goes to hell), and PNC’s Broadway Across America’s The Phantom of the Opera in Pittsburgh 2010. Each of these do well to exploit lighting schemes and compositions to sew emotions, moods, and dispositions into the individual: Phantom is one long play upon the darkness, and the production I saw used lightning bolts, candlelight, shadows (the negation of white light…very Hegelian [was there even a phantom?: a negation of the negation], and hearkening back to the asemic kernel), and use of flames, to name a few; Falstaff filled the opera house with mirth by way of vibrant hues, using the diffusion of light to create a general glow and ambiance, as well as direct lighting of those same color, which played on the absorption nature of garments worn by the characters; and Giovanni made great use of interaction between materials and lighting (gossamer curtain interacting with diffuse lighting, for instance), and the intense red that symbolized the hell that Giovanni fell into, followed by incandescently created flames.
The fact that many operas do not employ light in the way that some others I have experienced makes me wonder whether these productions aren’t being treated as theatre with orchestra, inconveniently married. I think there is a case to be made, and I would like to see a greater consciousness in the development of lighting schemes and techniques. By that, I don’t just mean attention to the light itself, but to interaction between the light and set, the garments, and even blocking; and all of this should be done with an eye toward the moods, dispositions, and emotions being created by the scene, and an ear to the music, which informs the rest, holistically.