Cleveland Opera Light Plot

by: Tanya Lee-Shadle

Modern stage lighting, like many other facets of the world, has been heavily impacted by technology. Today most theatrical lighting involves computer control and extensive memory systems; however, several centuries ago when poets such as William Shakespeare were writing some of the greatest theatrical pieces of all times, stage lighting was simply light from the sun. Because stage lighting has changed so dramatically, it is difficult to imagine how different the theatre experience would have been not only centuries ago, but also when Giacomo Puccini first saw the play Madame Butterfly under the direction of David Belasco.

The earliest forms of theatre were forced to utilize the open sky as the primary source of light. Although torches may have been used to create dramatic effect if a performance took place in the evening, actors and audience members experienced the same weather and time of day. It wasn't until the sixteenth century, when theatre had moved indoors, that stage lighting began to develop as an art form.

The earliest lighting effect occurred in 1539 when San Gallo of Florence, Italy filled a crystal sphere with colored water and illuminated it from behind with candles to create the image of the sun. While effects such as this were considered "cutting edge" at the time, the primary function and goal of lighting was simply to illuminate the actor. Over 40 years later, lighting improved somewhat when candles were placed on the sides of set pieces.

Advances in lighting design were slow to develop. Typical theatres possessed only one chandelier, which was placed over the front of the stage to illuminate both the stage and the auditorium. Footlights were mounted a short distance from the front edge of the stage to provide downstage lighting. Lights on stage were typically concealed from view by placing them on vertical poles behind the proscenium. Polished copper basins and mica were used to reflect the lights, thereby creating better lighting on the performers.

Because all lighting effects until this point were being achieved by candles and oil lamps, fires became increasingly prevalent. In addition, the lamps produced far too much smoke and smell to be utilized in the auditorium, and candles needed to be trimmed every twenty minutes.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, designers began to gain more control over lighting. During a 1674 production of The Tempest by Shakespeare, the Dorset Garden Theatre became the first theatre in history to dim the lights to create the dramatic effect of a sinking ship.

In 1771, French scenic designer Philip de Loutherbourg caused a major shift in theatrical design. He was described as, "The first artist who showed that by a just disposition of light and shade … and perspective, the eye of the spectator might be so effectively deceived … as to take the produce of art for real nature."** His vision inspired the addition of candle wicks and glass globes, creating a more consistent and brighter light.

In 1816, a Philadelphia theatre introduced gas lighting. For the first time, most parts of a stage could be lit with equal clarity and effects such as a setting sun could be easily created. Gas lighting was not without complications, however. Because city gas-main systems had not yet been developed, theatres were responsible for providing their own supply. Gas lights also produced a significant amount of heat and horrible fumes. It wasn't until 1850 that these systems became more controllable and fumes were more easily regulated.

Although gas lighting progressed significantly, Edison's introduction of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 attracted the attention of theatres worldwide. Richard D'Oyly Carte and his new theatre, the Savoy, became the first in London history to utilize electrical lighting in the 1881 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience.

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, German designers began focusing on improving the use of the cyclorama. The cyclorama, a piece of cloth hung as a backdrop for a stage, was typically white and lit as needed. Because colored glass lenses were now being used for stage lights, effects such as sunrises and sunsets could be created. It was an effect such as this, coupled with the innocence of David Belasco's Madame Butterfly character, that caused Puccini to pursue the storyline as a potential opera. Belasco's production featured screens depicting a garden of cherry blossoms, a rice field, and a sunset over a snow-covered volcano. Paul Kellogg, Artistic Director of Glimmerglass Opera, wrote that Belasco's "most impressive effect came during the vigil scene when Cio-Cio-San waits all night for Pinkerton to return. Belasco used changing lighting effects to create the sense of the passage of time from sunset to dawn, the sun's rise accompanied by the chirping of birds, and the fourteen-minute scene created a sensation." Although Puccini could not understand much of the English dialogue, Belasco's brilliant staging and portrayal of the heroine captured the composer's heart. By April, 1901 Puccini and Belasco had reached a final agreement so that the opera Madame Butterfly could be created. The opera premiered in 1904.

** Streader, Tim and John Williams, CREATE YOUR OWN STAGE LIGHTING Prentice-Hall, 1985.