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.