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Lighting the way to Opera Carolina's future

April 10, 2013

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    April 10, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

Lighting the way to Opera Carolina's future

Michael Baumgarten has designed lighting for hundreds of operas all over the country, including nearly 70 for Opera Carolina. His work for the upcoming production of "The Pearl Fishers" -- April 13, 18 and 21 at Belk Theater -- marks his first digital projection design for the company.

Opera Carolina's director of production and resident lighting designer started college intending to study law. Second semester of his freshman year, Baumgarten took a lighting design course. "That was it. I was hooked," he said.

Baumgarten comes across as the no-nonsense, straight-talking type, but always ready with a wisecrack. "As I like to say, I sit in the dark, I turn lights on and off, and people yell at me about the choices I make." Jokes aside, he admits to finding a certain wonder in what he does. "I love sitting there and making pictures with light, helping the audience to feel something from a visual standpoint, making it easier for the artists to get their point across because I've created an atmosphere that lends itself to what they're doing."

Baumgarten designed the lighting for Opera Carolina's original production of "The Pearl Fishers" in 2005, using an industry standard -- a neutral backdrop washed with various hues of light to set off the three-dimensional scenery elements. The new production will present a markedly different visual experience for the audience. Baumgarten has designed digital projections that layer moving images over scenes that evoke either the opera's tropical setting in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) or one of the plot's dramatic themes. The projections will create a dynamic backdrop to the three-dimensional scenery created for the 2005 production.

The projections will change as the opera progresses: in one scene, an image of the moon shining on the rippling surface of the ocean fades into a sunrise. Another vista transforms into the vision of a mysterious, veiled figure that represents the two male leads' memory of a woman from their past. Be prepared for that veiled figure of memory to show up on the island in all her reality and drive most to their doom -- it is a French opera after all, so the audience can expect acts of passion, betrayal and sacrifice.

At a panel discussion on art and technology at UNC Charlotte on April 4, Baumgarten harbored no pretense about the current state of opera. "Look, I'm a traditionalist, but the audience doesn't walk out whistling the scenery...We're trying to make an obscure art form appeal to a new audience."

Opera remains the most expensive of the performing arts to produce; Opera Carolina's productions run anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000. The high costs are due in part to the staffing requirements -- star vocalists, full orchestra, the many necessary back-stage personnel -- but a large part of the budget goes toward building the spectacle that the public expects from opera. "Where else do you get a production with dancers, singers and a live, 60-person orchestra?" asked Baumgarten. And of course, there are the elaborate sets. "When people come to see our operas, they come to see 'grand opera' -- big sets with gorgeous painting. There's a certain elegance to all of that. However, it costs a lot of money."

Cost concerns combined with the intent to reign in a new audience led Baumgarten and Opera Carolina General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena to explore the design potential of digital technologies. "The Pearl Fishers" isn't the first time that Opera Carolina has used digital projection, though the company's foray into the digital realm ties in well with the Ulysses Festival's 2013 theme of art and technology (the opera is included on the festival's program roster). Two productions last season, "Il Trovatore" and "Madame Butterfly," and this season's "The Magic Flute" used projections created by guest artists as primary set design elements.

The audience's response? "Some people loved it, some people hated it," says Baumgarten, recalling the reaction to Jun Kaneko's projection designs for "The Magic Flute." "My wife was sitting there opening night next to Kaneko when some guy a few seats over yelled, out loud, in the middle of the opera, 'Is this ever going to stop? I'm getting nauseous!'"

Now that Opera Carolina has made the upfront investment in the new technologies, only time and audience reaction will tell whether it will prove profitable for the company in the long term. Says Baumgarten, "If we can keep it interesting and change it up with our usual opera sets, we'll have something that is affordable for us, interesting for our audience, and a way for us to move forward."

By Jessica Thomas
Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance

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