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Photo from Tsar's Bride theater production
Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ in full production at London's Royal Opera House.

Lighting the Way

Stage lighting is essential to the theatrical experience, setting the audience’s mood while illuminating the performers.

It’s even more critical at extraordinary venues like London’s Royal Opera House, where CSULB Theatre Arts Professor David Jacques created lighting for the April debut of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Tsar’s Bride.”

It was Jacques’ second London visit as a lighting director in a career that has seen his designs appear in more than 300 theater, opera, television, dance and special event productions, including the English National Opera’s production of “Tosca” in May 2010. Over the past eight years, Jacques, stage designer Kevin Knight and director Paul Curran have worked as a creative team presenting new opera and theatre productions throughout Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and North America.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Jacques whose lighting designs have illuminated “Tannhauser” at La Scala in Milan, “Daphne” at Teatro La Fenice in Venice and “I Lombardi” in Florence.

When it comes to creativity, “lighting design is one of the art forms where art meets technology,” he explained. “The trick is to balance artistry and technology. You can’t allow one to overtake the other. What I try to teach my students at CSULB is how to be artists who understand the tools they work with. It takes an amazing amount of time and effort to do that. It is an ongoing process during four years of undergraduate work and three years more of graduate work.”

There’s nothing like getting first-hand experience working in world-renowned theaters, so this summer, two lighting design majors accompanied Jacques’ visit to Colorado’s Central City Opera, while another traveled with him to Spain’s Canary Islands for “Peter Grimes” and to Tokyo for “Rusalka.”

“Students have to learn how to work in the profession and that’s where working with me can help. I’m still active in the profession and able to take the students with me,” he said. “To me, a big part of being an instructor is being able to open doors for our students. I think it’s a win-win situation.”

That included the Royal Opera House. “Normally, the only place you see Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ is in Russia,” he explained. This was the opera’s first full production in London, telling the tragic tale of the third wife of Russian Tsar Ivan IV, aka “the Terrible.”

The artistic team’s aesthetic tends to be more to the abstract. Plus, they gave the historical story a modern twist.

“In this production, there was a realistic restaurant and street corner along with a realistic penthouse with a swimming pool on stage. But the final act, which takes place at the palace, we presented a much more expressionistic setting as it reflected the bride’s descent into madness. It was an interesting and unusual process for us that came out very well,” he said.

The Royal Opera House is a repertory company that hosts an opera one night, a technical rehearsal for a new production in the morning, and a ballet performance the following evening. “There are different rehearsals and performances going on all the time, and that leaves very little stage time to set up lighting,” Jacques said.

“To efficiently design the lighting within this limited production schedule, the Royal Opera House uses the same software that we teach here. We used the virtual lighting program called ESP Vision, a three-dimensional virtual lighting program that is totally state of the art. I brought two CSULB graduate students with me and, together, we spent two days in the opera’s computer-aided design studio, designing the lighting in virtual space. We were able to focus lights and set lighting cues virtually. After creating these atmospheres in the studio, all we had to do was to take the data from Vision and plug it into their lighting console. So instead of spending 20 hours creating lighting atmospheres in the theater, we spent only a few hours tweaking them.”

Differences in geography mean less to the globetrotting scholar than differences between theater crews. “You find yourself dealing with crews from different cultures and you had better understand that culture and work within it,” he said. “You must learn to adapt.”

For example, Jacques worked in Oslo, Norway, on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” “In American theater, 16-hour work days are not unusual and, unfortunately, our families suffer,” he explained. “But things are different in Norway, the home of the five-week vacation,” and different again in Italy. “There’s a beauty to the chaos of places like Naples,” he said. “You are discovering centuries of social history. Why fight it? I enjoy it.”

In addition to working with institutions like the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Kirov in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Canadian Opera Company and the Welsh National Opera, Jacques was a lighting consultant for Walt Disney Creative Entertainment and designed numerous projects for Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland Paris. In 2009, he also lit “The Magic Flute” in Hong Kong and at the new National Performing Arts Center in Beijing.

“Whether you are a designer or a bank teller, you’ve got to have passion,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just wasting your life.”