Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pick Up Your Q: Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel

Did you grow up going to the theatre? 

No, not really. I grew up on the far end of Staten Island during the 1960's and early 1970's. I remember thinking at the time that NYC was very far away. My parents were not the theatre-going type. In fact, I remember only one experience. It was during one of the holiday seasons. My parents took us to see the Radio City Christmas show (I believe I was 7, 8 years old at the time), and that experience really affected me. It was eye-opening in every sense of the word! 

Do you remember the moment that captured your interest in theatre and design? Was there a particular designer that you admired or who influenced you?

Yes, I remember a distinct moment. In 1972, when I was 16 years old, my family moved to Florida,to a very small town called New Port Richey. The town is located on the west coast of Florida, north of the town of Tarpon Springs. It is a shoreline community, with lots of sun and beach culture. This was a time of major migration to the south from the northern states, and my high school was overcrowded. One day I remember coming home from school to make lunch, I turned on our small, black & white television as background noise. The only station we received was the local PBS station and (I believe) "Dance in America" was on. Valery and Galina Panov, the Russian dance couple, were in concert. The announcer stated that they would be performing the grande pas de deux from "The Nutcracker." Well, for me, I had no idea what a pas de deux was. In fact, I did not know what "The Nutcracker" was either. However, I just continued to make my lunch. Then this beautiful music began. They started to dance; it began to pull my focus. I had never seen or experienced such striking physicality, strength and artistry. It was completely outside my frame of reference. I found myself transfixed. I stopped making my lunch and just focused on this small image on the TV. As the duet ended, it literally took my breath away. I remember standing there dazed, and somehow, I thought, "Whatever that is, that's what I want to do." I see that experience as the moment I decided to become a theatre artist and designer. 

What was your first assignment as a lighting designer? 

Well, I'm not sure I remember the first show! I did become part of a wonderful community theater in New Port Richey--The Richey Suncoast Theatre--where I had my introduction to what "the Theatre" was, and specifically lighting. I did many musicals and comedies. I became (at 17 years of age) the "lighting guy" at the theatre. However, during this time I thought I wanted to be a dancer. 

You've collaborated with Bill T. Jones and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for 30 years. How did this relationship begin?

I first met Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane in 1985. As the company was growing, touring more, etc., they were looking for a lighting designer. I was recommended to them. I had a meeting with them. A few days later, I was asked to light a new piece called "Black Room." I have the pleasure, joy and satisfaction the continue working with Bill and the BTJ/AZ Dance Company to this day. 

Is there a significant difference between designing the lighting for dance and designing it for opera?

Yes and no. Both forms use music as a major part of the structure. Music and movement are non-verbal forms of communication. I feel that light is also a non-verbal form. Light can add, enhance, clarify or transform a moment that can have profound emotional and psychological impact. However, with light, one needs context to fully express an idea. It is the synthesis of the forms that create the moment. 

What do you think is the greatest challenge for a lighting designer to convey in a show? 

I think all elements--scenery, costumes, lighting, etc.--all share the same challenges, namely, how do we tell the story we want to tell? 

Is it more difficult when directors allow you to build your vision from a blank slate, or when they give you a specific vision of their own? 

Working in the theatre is a collaborative process. I do not believe it is just one person's "vision." The most satisfying projects are when we all contribute, each in their discipline. That being said, the director is the leader, of sorts. He/she had brought a group of designers, singers, managers, etc. together to create a production that will have impact for the time and moment it is created. 

Has technology changed your process and execution for better or worse? Have there been any significant challenges you've faced with change? 

This is a difficult question to consider...There is not a simple answer. Yes, technology has had (and is having) a profound effect on how we work in the theatre. Lighting in productions can be far more complex today than it could be 20-30 years ago. Computer-controlled lighting fixtures and consoles have opened new and exciting ways of thinking. This is definably better. However, although it is not really possible, time seems to get faster every year! The economics of our world means one must do more in less time. This is not always conducive to making meaningful art. This is not better. 

In training the next generation of lighting designers, what do you try to impart to your students? Have their interests and goals changed over the years?

I try to impart to my students what the initial process of lighting design is, how to give light significance in context. Questions of meaning, structure, process and intent must be examined and discussed. What light can and cannot communicate. Hopefully, my students will begin to develop a visual and conceptual vocabulary, a first step in the practice of creating ideas with light. I hope I can give my students a different way of seeing. As to their interests and goals...most want what many of us want: to work in a profession that is fulfilling and satisfying and lead a fruitful life. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out in lighting design?

Be open-minded...Embrace the world...Expand your passion...Understand the world you want to be part of...exploit a range of experiences, from opera, museums, dance, concerts, happenings, dance parties. Fill your mind with different points of view. And lastly, but most importantly, I would ask myself the question: What kind of life do you want to live? 

When you have an answer, go and begin to live it. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Join the Adventure in our 2015-16 Season!

On February 3rd, we unveiled our lineup for the coming 2015-16 season. We invite you to Join the Adventure as we embark on both the imaginative journeys of the operas, as well as the new pathways that opera in Atlanta has taken in recent years. The operas we have planned will take you on adventures around the world and into an exotic realm of beauty and heartbreak. 

We open our mainstage season at the Cobb Energy Centre with a fresh interpretation of Puccini's La bohème, a celebrated journey of romance and camaraderie in the magical French Quarter in Paris. March takes us on a rollicking sea-faring voyage to the shores of England with Gilbert and Sullivan's adventurous The Pirates of Penzance, a first for the Atlanta Opera. The season draws to a close in the romantic town of Verona with Gounod's grand interpretation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, an adventure of love that ends in tragedy.

There is a major renaissance going on in the world of opera right now, and its epicenter in the United States. We plan to be a key player in that revolution, and in the evolution of the art form. While Atlanta audiences enthusiastically embrace the classical works that we present in a new, innovative way on the main stage, they have also shown as appetite for both new and experimental works, and new perspectives on less frequently staged operas. We are proud to launch our Atlanta Opera Discoveries series this spring with out inaugural production of Three Decembers at the Alliance Theatre in May. Next season, Discoveries brings us Schubert's song-cycle Winterreise (Winter's Journey), presented in a striking new multimedia production. We will also present the Southeastern premiere of David T. Little's Soldier Songs, a powerful musical event that combines elements of theater, opera, and rock-infused music to explore the perceptions and realities of a soldier's journey from innocence to experience. 

Rather than write a lot about the shows, we hope you will come experience them yourself. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland: "No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time." We're off on a great adventure. Join us.

Tomer Zvulun
General & Artistic Director

Monday, February 2, 2015

An Entire Opera Written and Performed in 24 Hours?

It all began and ended with four simple colors: pink, purple, orange, and green.

It was a rainy Friday morning at 9 o’clock, and a raw chill seemed to hush the usual whir of cars speeding down Peachtree. The drizzle dampened the brick exterior of First Presbyterian with a fresh coat of dew. Inside, four composers and four librettists, some veterans and some newbies, sat wondering with whom they would be paired. Four colors sat in a basket, each hand hesitantly grabbing its owner’s fate. The teams were formed:

Pink: Composer Marvin Carlton & Librettist Sumita Chakraborty
Purple: Composer Andy Bayles & Librettist Daniel Bosch
Orange: Composer Natalie Williams & Librettist Madeleine St. Romain
Green: Composer Lauren McCall & Librettist Vynnie Meli

The teams immediately broke free to work for the next 12 hours around their baby grands. Working with a mandatory prop (a hideous polyester shirt, a telephone, a camera, and a bouquet of flowers, respectively) and attempting to incorporate the overarching theme of “Not for the Faint of Heart,” the courageous composers and librettists crafted and honed their pieces through Friday afternoon into the evening until 10 p.m.

On Saturday morning at 10 a.m., the singers, stage directors and musical directors were added to the mix. After being assigned to each team of composer and librettist combination, the new teams rehearsed and staged the pieces that had just been created some 12 hours earlier. The lineup:

Stage Director: Kristin Kenning
          Musical Director: Catherine Giel
          Singers: Sakinah Davis, Laura Ann Cotney, Nick Yaquinto, and Jonathan Spuhler
          Stage Director: Heidi Cline McKurley
          Musical Director: Erin Palmer
Singers: Jeanette Simpson, CatieLeigh Laszewski, Abigail Halon, and C. Augustus Godbee
          Stage Director: Michael Nutter
          Musical Director: Daniel Solberg
          Singers: Megan Brunning, Laurie Tossing, Reina Powell, Alan Higgs, and David Porter
          Stage Director: David DeVries
          Musical Director: Erika Tanawa
Singers: Jayme Alilaw, Caitlin Andrews, William Green and Brandon Odom

Fast forward to Saturday evening. Everyone moved downtown to Theatrical Outfit, where the madness was about to begin. As the crowds filed into the lobby of the theatre, the singers and directors rehearsed their pieces for one last time.
Host and Atlanta Opera Director of Marketing and Communications, Dave Paule, jumped on stage to start the evening. He introduced the judges: Tom Key, Artistic Director at Theatrical Outfit, Andrew Alexander from Creative Loafing and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Noel Morris from WABE. They would determine the Judges Winner. Paule then introduced the performers, and thanked the audience who would also be choosing their favorite composition with ballots of four simple colors: pink, purple, orange, and green.

The Pink team, with a piece titled Love in Idlenesswas an irreverent exploration of
materialism. Set to Marvin Carlton’s jaunty melody and Sumita Chakraborty’s lyrics, the singers took whiffs of a magic potion from a gilded chalice and immediately fell in love with inanimate objects. Baritone Jonathan Spuhler did double duty, first with a polyester disco shirt (the mandatory prop), and then with a rubber chicken, hilariously serenading and fondling the synthetic piece of poultry.
The Purple team was next with Our Needs Align. Using a black 1990s push button telephone as the inspiration, Composer Andy Bayles and Librettist Daniel Bosch explored both the differences and sameness inherent in technological changes. As Bosch explained, “Two times, two couples, the same problem.”

The Orange team presented Tuesdays with Pictures, which could best be described as Verdi meets Scooby Doo. Three ghost hunters (who identify themselves as “Paranatural P.I.s” in a catchy chorus) believe they can help the Andersons, who live in a haunted house. They show them proof of ghosts in pictures they took with their (prop alert!) camera. Natalie Williams’ score and Madeline St. Romain’s libretto was a perfect fusion of
a sarcastic angle with mysterious overtones. By the end, we learn that the Paranatural P.I.s are actually ghosts themselves. In a society that is fairly well jaded by Law & Order plot devices, it was a pleasant surprise to know that a good mystery can still keep an audience captivated.

Finally, the Green team got political with the very funny Mother Nature, Sister Sludge. Composer Lauren McCall and Librettist Vynnie Meli, inspired by a bouquet of flowers, lambasted the rise of corporate greed and indifference for our home planet. Sister Sludge leads the audience in a melodic chant of “Reduce, reuse, recycle” to bring Mother Nature back to life, only to fall victim to the evils of human intervention.
It was time for the judges to deliberate and the audience to choose their favorite piece. As Key, Alexander, and Morris huddled in the lobby, baskets were passed down the aisles to collect ballots with four simple colors. Local comedy troupe Dad’s Garage helped to pass the time with gut-busting improve games and hilarious audience participation.
Paule made his way out to the stage, and called Pink, Purple, Orange, and Green to stand behind him. The judges and the audience had chosen their favorites (Drum roll, please…):

Judges’ Favorite: Our Needs Align (Purple Team)
Audience Favorite: Tuesdays with Pictures (Orange Team)

The audience immediately stood to their feet with a resounding applause. They had chosen a favorite, but they were clapping for everyone. The seemingly impossible feat of composing, writing, blocking, and performing four different operas in a 24 hour time span had proven possible. It was proof for the audience, but more importantly, it was proof for the artists. Those who walked in the door Friday and Saturday morning, hungry for a challenge, or merely trying to be brave, walked away from the 24-Hour Opera Project feeling more confident in themselves and maybe even a little more inspired when they would remember themselves as pink, purple, orange, or green.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pick Up Your Q: Costume Designer Vita Tzykun

Where did you grow up? 

I was born and raised in Odessa (former USSR) which is now Ukraine. A year before the USSR fell apart, my family immigrated to Israel, where I finished school and got a B.F.A. in design for theater at Tel Aviv University. Then I moved to the U.S. to complete my M.F.A. in costume design for stage, and production design for film. It's been a fascinating journey to live in three countries that are so extremely different. I constantly draw from those experiences in my design work. 

How did you get into costume design?

My father is a stage and costume designer, a painter, and an art educator. When I was growing up, I spent long hours at his studio that was located at the theater where he worked and I was inspired and fascinated by that world from an early age.

For a while, I wanted to become a fashion designer, but later I realized that I am drawn to storytelling as much as I am drawn to fabrics, colors, and patterns, and what better way to combine those two passions than design costumes for complex characters?

Who is your favorite artist, living or dead? 

There are so many amazing artists in so many different disciplines. It would be quite impossible for me to single one out. A theater and film designer needs to be very well-rounded in order to be able to design for different stories that take place in different time periods. 

Depending on the project, I often find myself drawing inspiration from a wide range of artists: Medieval composers, pre-Raphaelite painters, modern installation artists like Matthew Barney and Ryoji Ikeda, electronic musicians like Björk, The Knife, Grimes, DADA poets, symbolists, Russian constructivists, writers like Dostoyevsky, Kurt Vonnegut, and Haruki Murakami, and the list goes on....

During a production, what is a typical day for you?

My day never really consists of working on one production, as I (and designers in general) typically work on multiple projects that are in different phases at any given moment. A typical work day for me ranges from 10-16 hours. For example, today I spent the morning scouting locations for a film I'll be working on in NYC. This afternoon, I was in meetings for a dance piece that will premiere in Germany, for which I will design costumes. This evening, I will be 3D drafting scenic sketches for a rock opera starring Courtney Love. 

What kind of preparation went into creating the period costumes for Rigoletto?

Vita Tzykun
A lot of research went into this production because Elizabethan era costumes are some of the most technically complicated in the history of clothing. Most of the costumes were built in Hungary by a costume shop called Jelmez-Art that specializes in period clothing. 

Some additional builds were created by an American costume shop called CostumeWorks, located in Boston. Fabrics for the costumes were purchased in Berlin, Budapest, Boston, and New York, so you can say that it was truly an international effort to bring those designs to life. 

Do you prefer creating period costumes or doing more conceptual work?

The style of the design is always derived from the story.

I prefer to design for interesting stories and work with inspiring collaborators. 
The first question should always be: "What do you want to say with this show?" How you are going to say it is the next step.

How does Rigoletto's physical transformation factor into the design of his costume?

I always start with character analysis and derive the design from there. Rigoletto is described as a physically crippled man, but the curse cripples him morally, and that makes him deteriorate and deform progressively throughout the course of the night. 
Tomer and I employed visual metaphors through costume and movement to show that Rigoletto's inability to carry out his revenge progressively weighs on him physically to such a degree that by the end of the show he can hardly carry himself upright. 
His hump grows larger, eventually bursting through the lacing of his doublet, his jester coat no longer fits, forcing him to invent new ways to tie it around his torso, his shoe platform grows in height and weight making it more and more difficult for him to move, dragging his limp foot behind. During the course of the show he turns from an agile and cynical jester to a helpless and crippled old man.

When one looks at your designs up close, it is clear that you have incredible attention to detail. Is this an important quality to have in costume design? 

Photos: David Adam Moore

Attention to detail is extremely important, as there is simply no excuse for generic design in any discipline. God is in the details.

What has been your favorite show to work on?

Whichever show I'm designing at the moment.

What was the most interesting or challenging costume you created? What made it so?

Costumes for the production of Falstaff that Tomer and I did at Wolf Trap Opera were probably among the most challenging because I fused Elizabethan and Victorian costume styles together to create a whimsical world that draws from both the time period in which the opera was written and the time period in which the story was set. You can see some examples of that here:!falstaff/c1cof 

What piece of advice would you give to an artist starting out in costume design?

Serve the story first and make sure that every design choice you make propels the story forward. Acquire technical skills with passion so that you can have a more versatile and

potent expressive range.

Photos: Marina Levitskaya

More photos and information about Vita at:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pick Up Your Q: Sara Erde, Associate Stage Director/Choreographer for Madama Butterfly

How did you and Tomer meet?

I met Tomer in 2009 when we both collaborated on Richard Eyre's hit production of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera. I was assisting choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Tomer was assisting Richard. It was one of those times in creating opera when everything is magical and everyone respects and adores each other! Tomer took over the directorial reigns when Carmen was revived so we spent many years together creating and recreating the passion and desperation of Bizet's Seville.
Fortunately, this summer, I was able to join the artistic team of Tomer's brilliant Madama Butterfly when it premiered at Castleton Festival.

What is it like to work with Tomer?

Working with Tomer is extraordinary. First of all, he's incredibly kind and smart. This immediately puts his colleagues - conductors, singers, stage managers, everyone - at complete ease in a truly creative and enthusiastic spirit. Tomer knows what he wants from other artists and from the piece. He is passionate about what he creates, a strong and fierce visionary, but also a generous collaborator. He knows how to encourage and shape the best ideas from us all. He also amazes me with the way he balances knowing what he wants to create with creating on the spot. Tomer is like a master jazz musician - able and happy to improvise around a steady structure. That's why his work is fresh and new. It's alive.

How was it working with Maestro Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival this past summer?

This summer in Castleton was unparalleled. As we all know, Mo. Maazel was ill, but he was on the mend throughout the summer and was energized by the creative work going on around him. When we would arrive at rehearsal on any given day and see a comfy blue recliner, we would know that he'd be with us that day. And I would often watch him watching the artists and the creation going on. He looked absolutely THRILLED! I feel blessed to have shared Mo. Maazel's last summer. I can report that he was very happy, inspired, and inspiring to all around him. He absolutely loved Tomer's Madama Butterfly, and he utterly adored Tomer.

What do you find intriguing about this production of Madama Butterfly?

Tomer's Madama Butterfly probes the tragedy that ensues when cultures clash and human beings misunderstand and therefore mistreat each other. His ideas of character begin with their humanity and a deep understanding of their struggles and desires. His staging is always born from the natural drive of the characters, from what they want from themselves and from each other, and above all, from Puccini's glorious music. On a personal note, I adore watching Tomer when he's directing because as he becomes more and more transformed by the singing and the music, he nearly dances. And for a choreographer, that's heaven!

What other productions have you worked on at the Met?

I started at the Met in 1996 as a flamenco dancer in Franco Zeffirelli's Carmen. I soon progressed to working as an assistant choreographer/movement coach and have collaborated in this capacity on many productions including Carmen, La Traviata, Don Carlo, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Last season, I made my choreography debut in Richard Eyre's Werther with Jonas Kauffmann, and recently choreographed Mr. Eyre's Le Nozze di Figaro which opened the Met season.

I'm also in my fourth season as a member of the Met directing staff. Since 2011 I've been fortunate to be one of the directors in charge of remounting Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choi's sublime Madama Butterfly. It's been a blessing to be intimately involved with this opera for so long. It's a masterpiece and makes me weep every time.

How do you like Atlanta so far?

Atlanta is a gorgeous city filled with wonderful people. I worked at the Alliance Theatre in 2013 performing Zorro the Musical, so I arrived here at the start of our Butterfly rehearsals already in love with the kindness and generosity of the terrific Atlantans.

Some favorite spots include the Botanical Gardens, Piedmont Park, the Alliance Theatre, and the delicious Optimist restaurant. Of course, when my 7-year-old daughter visits, we head straight for the aquarium and Lego Land!