In an extract from his new Platform Paper, the lighting designer discusses a famous scene from La Bohème.

Nigel Levings, one of Australia’s leading lighting designers, has written about his 45-year career and working process in a new Platform Paper for Currency House entitled THE LIGHTING DESIGNER: What is ‘good lighting’? Levings has lit around 500 opera and theatre productions, both in Australia and overseas. In 2003, he won a Tony Award for his lighting design for Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème. He is currently lighting productions of Tartuffe for State Theatre Company of South Australia and Tosca for State Opera of South Australia.

Nigel Levings. Photo courtesy of Currency House

This is an extract from his Platform Paper, published this week:

“Playwrights will from time to time get to see how designers interpret their work. In this case they have the chance to exercise their judgment, and ask themselves, is the lighting for their play ‘good’? My friend and colleague the stage designer Stephen Curtis, the author of a recent Platform Paper, suggested that stage directions in italics should be ignored unless written by Patrick White; but I disagree. It’s true that the author may not be the best judge of how to stage the work they have written but the stage directions are a collection of valuable clues to the meaning of the work. I am particularly interested in the structure that authors build in their plays. The rhythm of scenes is important and sometimes it is not right to ride roughshod over these breaks in an attempt to ‘play through’ the text.

Lighting designers by habit of professional focus will be reading a text for clues about time and place. One of the fundamental rules for good lighting might be: never make a liar of the actor. If in the course of the dialogue a character refers to the moonlight then it is the lighting designer’s responsibility to make sure the audience recognise the reference. In many texts the time of day is of critical importance to the plot. The plays of Shakespeare were written at a time when performances occurred during daylight hours; illumination of the stage made little contribution to the audience’s experience. Instead the text carried the whole weight of identifying time and place and the stage picture was elaborated in the audience’s imagination. ‘Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i’th’ receiving earth.’ This very clear indication, from the Prologue in Henry V, of the audience’s role in the creation of the play, is central to my thesis on triggering the imaginative participation of the theatre audience.

Act 3 of Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème on Broadway lit by Nigel Levings. Photo by Sue Adler

In the first Act of the opera La Bohème the scene is set in a Parisian rooftop garret, the home of a group of struggling artists. It is night time on Christmas Eve, Northern Hemisphere. We know from the text that the space is candle-lit, that it has been very cold and that halfway through the scene the bohemians will light a stove with an unexpected gift of firewood. We know also that at least by the end of this scene some beautiful winter moonlight will transfigure the soprano Mimi and send our hero Rodolfo tumbling head over heels in love with her. When they meet he is writing by candlelight in the warmth and perhaps light from the stove, his fellow lodgers having left him alone while they go to the local bar. Mimi, a neighbour, enters with her candle; it has gone out and she does not have a light in her apartment. She is pale from the exertions of her climb and perhaps the incipient consumption that will kill her at the end of the opera, and this causes her to faint. She revives, they talk briefly by the warm fire, he lights her candle and she starts to exit but discovers she has dropped the key to her apartment. As she is standing in the doorway her candle is blown out by the wind. A moment later Rodolfo’s candle also goes out—or perhaps he has seized the opportunity and extinguished his own candle. So now the room is quite dark—the Italian word in the text is buio’—gloom or blackness. In this gloom they search for her lost key. At one particular point in the music Rodolfo finds the key, exclaims and then quickly hides it in his pocket. A clear expression of his interest in this pale, shy young woman. In their continued searches in the darkness their hands touch and with this touch Rodolfo first comments on her tiny cold hand. Thus begins the first of the two great love arias of the opera.

So here is the lighting dilemma. In a large theatre, with many people viewing the stage from well over thirty metres, how do we convey the sense of a very dark room and yet still reveal to our audience this small but critical gesture of someone finding and then concealing a key? Of this first delicate, accidental—or perhaps deliberate—touch of their hands in the darkness? We must also remember that this is the sort of darkness that liberates feelings, hides blushes and encourages intimacy. It is a snug corner in a bleak and lonely winter; warm, intimate and soon to be bathed in glorious moonlight. A transfiguring moonlight for Mimi that we will come to understand in time foretells her proximity to death. They are doomed from the start. These are the sorts of meanings we must strive to convey with the lighting. Get this right and maybe the composer and librettist would have agreed that we had made ‘good lighting’.

Contemporary writing for the theatre does not seem to require such loading of the text with this precisely detailed track of lighting imagery; but care still needs to be taken that the stage lighting echoes the times and places in which the author places the action. Lighting that is evocative of this ‘track’ will probably be counted as good by the author. Lighting that respects the author’s written structure will also get a tick in the good lighting box. Given that the author has the text rattling around inside their head, the issue of actor visibility and consequent audibility may not rank as highly in the good lighting scale of attributes. But evocation of text and unity of structure with the text certainly fall within the criteria of good lighting. Lighting that integrates itself into the production and stitches the elements together into a seamless whole.”


This is an extract from the new Platform Paper THE LIGHTING DESIGNER: What is ‘Good Lighting’? by Nigel Levings published this week by Currency House.

The full essay is available HERE