by Suzanne Vanstone, Senior Communications Manager, Editorial at the Canadian Opera Company
Opera is already an art form that encompasses so much – music, poetry, dance, drama, storytelling. They all serve to complement each other and allow an audience to become fully immersed in the theatrical experience. So it is perfectly natural for opera to seek and absorb other aspects for enrichment. Video is one of these.
We have certainly experienced video effects in previous productions the COC has presented. From Atom Egoyan’s Salome (which we are remounting this spring) to our recent production of Love from Afar, video and video projections are no strangers to our opera audience. But they are often employed for short periods of time, or as a “still” projection, to enhance a certain set or scene. In Peter Sellars’ production of Tristan und Isolde, the video that renowned video artist Bill Viola has created, is integral to this production and runs for the entire length of the five-hour opera. The exquisite marriage of video, music and drama is seamless. The video becomes one with the stage and Viola’s use of primal elements of fire and water emotionally illustrate the lovers’ journey in a wholly spiritual and sensory way.
David Feheley, COC technical director, and Barney Bayliss COC associate technical director, discuss some of the technical requirements that come into play with Tristan. Feheley says, “Whereas in Love from Afar there were many, smaller technical aspects, Tristan has one giant one – the video! During Love from Afar, there was a 20-minute video scene of travel across the Mediterranean. In Tristan the whole opera is accompanied by one video comprised of individual video clips. This production is very simply staged on a black stage with a small rake (angled floor), and the screen slightly upstage of the rake. There is no ‘scenery,’ minimal props, and very little focus other than the video. So the video becomes key.
Bayliss’s biggest challenge is to ensure that everyone in the hall can see the entire screen. “The Four Seasons Centre (FSC) is not a movie theatre and does not have movie theatre sightlines – it’s a five-level theatre. In order for everyone in Ring 5 to see the entire screen, we need to remove the regular SURTITLES™ screen and replace it with two others. One will hang lower than the current one, and one will hang on the theatre’s “eyebrow” up in the house for the Ring 5 patrons. It’s a bit like what we did when we performed at the Elgin Theatre 20 years ago, where we hung a second screen under the balcony. But this is the first time at the FSC that we have done this.”
How do the orchestra, the singers and the film co-ordinate? Is the conductor beholden to the video? Is each performance strictly regimented? What happens if a singer takes a little more time one night? Feheley says, “The video is divided into sections, or phrases. We have equipment that can speed up or slow down these video sections. The stage manager cues it with the orchestra.” Bayliss continues, “It’s the same as if you had a lighting cue – if you have one with a 15-second fade – the cue lasts 15 seconds. The stage manager is going to call it on the same bar of music every night. All of the video clips, or timed sequences, are also called on the same bar of music.” There might be up to 100 different cues throughout the opera where the video clips are started, and each clip will always start with the music, but on any given night they will line up slightly differently. Music, of course, needs the ability to retain its fluidity.
“Maestro dictates the tempi, not us,” continues Bayliss. “The projector is controlled by two computers and you can fade back and forth – like a DJ with two turntables. In this case it’s being operated by technicians Sylvain Levacher and Guilhem Jayet who worked for the Paris production of Tristan in 2005, supervised by Alex MacInnis, Viola’s technical director, and they use a fader to move smoothly between video clips.
“It’s just another element that has to expand and contract with the show. Fly cues, entrances, lighting changes, all of that has to happen with the music. We just have to ensure that the clips have enough footage to co-ordinate with the performer if they take a little more time one night. In Love from Afar, for example, we were very close to running out of film for some of the sequences. If you run out of red sunset, it’s a problem! So we had to keep extending clips to give us a safe amount of time. If we discovered during the rehearsal process that something was too short, then the next day we lengthened it – it’s best to be prepared.”In terms of the projection screen itself, the COC owns a mammoth rear projection screen that is 41 feet tall by 78 feet wide. This past July, Bayliss spoke with MacInnis and discussed different ideas about the positioning of the screen and the space required around it. The formatting of the screen changes during the opera – Acts I and II are in a horizontal format, but in Act III the projector shifts and the images shown are vertical.
Although the show is long, the crew is tiny. There is very little scenery movement and no flying pieces to change except at the intermission. Whereas Die Fledermaus had a crew of approximately 27 people, Tristan will be much smaller. Feheley sums up, “In some ways it’s a simple production – in other ways it’s tricky because it has to be clean and perfect for every performance. A lot of time is spent working with MacInnis ensuring that the projections run smoothly. It has to be nailed every night. If we miss our mark by a few inches on the giant staircase on its third position in Act II of Die Fledermaus – it’s not the end of the world. But this? It’s crucial!
This article is published in our Winter 2013 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the issue online.
Photos: (top) (l – r) Daveda Karanas as Brangäne, Melanie Diener as Isolde, Ben Heppner as Tristan and Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tristan und Isolde, 2013; (middle)(l - r) Dave Feheley and Barney Bayliss; (middle) (l – r) Alan Held as Kurwenal, Ben Heppner as Tristan, Daveda Karanas as Brangäne and Melanie Diener as Isolde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tristan und Isolde, 2013; (bottom) Melanie Diener as Isolde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tristan und Isolde, 2013. Photos: (top) Michael Cooper; (middle) Chris Hutcheson; (bottom) Michael Cooper.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001