27 January 2015 at 12.14pm | 7 Comments
Perhaps the first thing to strike you when watching Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, which returns to the Covent Garden stage this summer, is how the physical set is quite literally a blank canvas – the base for another, virtual set that seems to paint itself on in light before your eyes.
The first breaktaking visual effect occurs during the overture, when the names of the women in Giovanni’s notorious catalogue of sexual conquests begin to write themselves on the set, as if scripted by many invisible hands. Finally, Leporello enters, holding a pencil, and scribbles the name of his master’s latest conquest, or victim, depending on your point of view: ‘Anna’.
Giovanni’s catalogue is the starting point for the visual themes of the production. From this, the design team – video designer Luke Halls, set designer Es Devlin and lighting designer Bruno Poet – created this effect. Halls commissioned calligraphers to write out each name in Giovanni’s not-so-little black book, the sum of which is 2,065, if you add up all those detailed by Leporello during his Catalogue Aria. Halls then animated each of these scripts to look as if they are being handwritten in real time.
But how does a video animation find its way on to the set? The secret lies in a piece of specialist equipment, a small black box known simply as a d3, which is a combination of software and hardware. As well as being a programmable ‘brain’ that enables a designer to create virtual three-dimensional simulations from video-based installations, it can also send these images to a projector to play back live on set.
Both programming and then operating the d3 unit during the performance is Gareth Shelton, sound and broadcast deputy manager, who works closely with the design team and the production manager, Will Harding.
So how does the singer playing Leporello know where and when to start writing when he appears on stage? The answer, says Gareth, in this case is not so much technological trickery as plenty of rehearsal time. ‘There are clear musical cues when he should write. In the first production, Alex Esposito practices writing the script over and over again, in the right sequence to the music, until it was perfect. And, although this is invisible to the audience, if you look carefully in the right place, the word ‘Anna’ is penciled on, ever so faintly to act as a guide.’
Having a set that’s entirely painted by light throws up other challenges too – how do you light the singers without washing out the set around them? ‘The set is effectively lit by the video, with some regular lighting enhancement,’ explains Gareth, ‘and then the singers are tracked by several followspots.’ But perhaps the cleverest and most complicated effect goes almost unnoticed by the audience. At several points the set, which is cube-shaped, starts to rotate, and the projections of doors and windows rotate with it, seamlessly obeying the laws of perspective and foreshortening and changing shape. It looks so natural you could overlook it, but it is in fact fiendishly complicated, based on constant feedback between the motor moving the set and the d3 unit, which detects the position of the set and adjusts the image it projects accordingly. ‘If it didn’t work, you would know, but when it does it looks just like a regular painted set that’s rotating, albeit enhanced with some beautiful animations.’
Gareth achieved this by spending several weeks programming the d3 unit with Luke Halls’s video designs, taking into account the size of the set, the angle of rotation and distance of the projector from the set. There was plenty of time spent in music rehearsals too, making sure every musical cue aligned with the visual effects. With such painstaking attention to detail, Gareth admits he has probably memorized every note in the opera.
Gareth’s biggest challenge after the revival of the production however, will come when The Royal Opera takes Don Giovanni on tour to Tokyo and Osaka in September this year. ‘We have very little time to reconfigure the show in Tokyo,’ he says. ‘It is the same set, but bear in mind it’s a different-shaped theatre, with different angles, heights and positions. We then go to Osaka, where we have just one day to get it right.’
Don Giovanni is staged with generous philanthropic support from the Danish Research Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment fund. It is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera.
An exhibition showing the making of Don Giovanni is currently on display in the main entrance foyer of the Royal Opera House. The free exhibition melds video, designs and costumes to offer unique insight into the process of staging this production.
This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.