The 411 on Lighting Design for Grand Opera

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The annual LDI conference just happens to start this year on the first day of National Opera Week (October 23), so it seemed like the perfect time to find out what it’s like to design lighting for grand opera. We asked J.R. Clancy - Lighting Design, 28-year resident Nic Minetor, lighting designer for the top-ranked opera program at the Eastman School of Music, and lighting designer for the Finger Lakes Opera and theater, musical and dance productions at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, among others.

Q: Is there a difference between lighting for the theater and for grand opera?

Minetor: Yes and no. You have all the same design tools in your toolbox, but the practical considerations are different. In professional theater, actors rehearse ten out of twelve hours in a day during tech, so lighting rehearsal time takes place with actors onstage. In opera, there are rules in place to protect the singers’ voices, so they only rehearse four hours a day. This means that I do much of the lighting with walkers onstage instead of the actual performers, and we have to be very buttoned up during rehearsals. I can’t ask the cast to stop and wait for me to fix a cue—especially when there’s a full orchestra in the pit.

Q: How is technology changing your job?

Minetor: LED lights and new types of luminaires are becoming more prevalent. There are good LED lights and cheap ones, and the cheaper ones present some challenges—but the good lights are fabulous. I can choose the exact color I want on my iPad. If the director has a new idea in the middle of tech, it’s not a 4-hour call to change gel in a light anymore – I can just do it in a second on a tablet. With LEDs, we have the ability to be infinite in the choice of colors . Essentially, you can create your own digital gel book—all the colors you want, without the effort.

There are some things to get used to as well—for example, the old tungsten lights go from yellow to orange to red as they fade out, and we are used to how that looks. LEDs, however, hold the color throughout a fade without changing. If I have a mix of LED and tungsten lights and I have matched the LED to the tungsten/gel color at full, the LED will still be the same color at 40%—but the tungsten color will change as the light goes down. It makes for some unexpected things at times.

Q: What’s your favorite aspect of the job?

Minetor: Problem-solving. Many technical theater people are problem solvers, and that’s the most satisfying thing to me. I like doing this collaboratively—working with other designers and technicians. If you ask the same question of three designers and technicians, you’ll get nine answers, including some ideas you would not have thought of on your own.

Q: What advice would you give someone starting out in the field?

Minetor: I can tell you what worked for me. Instead of going to graduate school, I got a job as a master electrician at Geva Theatre, a LORT B theater in upstate New York. So instead of working with one or two design professors at a college, I worked with more than 30 professional designers over the course of several years. I got to see what working designers were doing, and I learned from their work. When you get to see many different people solving the same problems in your theater, you get an idea of what might work and what might not for you. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to go to graduate school today, but this got me started in the right direction.

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