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Bob Bernard's Corner: The Godmother of Production Design

by Bob Bernard

The "Godmother of Projection Design", as Wendall Harrington is often called, will return to Los Angeles Opera (LAO) as Projection Designer for our new production of Lucia di Lammermoor in March. She is the recipient of the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the American Theatre Wing Award, the TCI Award for Technical Achievement, and the Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Projections.

Ms. Harrington states the case for projections over painted sets beautifully: “Painted sets are static, constraining what thoughts are able to be conveyed to an audience. Projected images are ephemeral; they live in another dimension, and dance in a way that is like music and poetry.” Her designs for opera have included a staging of Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute in Florence, Italy, The Ghosts of VersaillesRusalkaNixon in ChinaDie Tote StadtLa Fanciulla del West, and Orfeo et Euridice.

LAO’s April 2010 Production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, one of LAO’s Recovered
 Voices series, was a showcase for both Ms. Harrington’s style and technique. Using LAO’s four-element projection system, images from above and onto the front scrim were added to a pair of rear projections to yield the impression of depth to the following scene, plus illustrating how, even with accommodating the stage’s steep rake (a live-with imperative from the then concurrent production of Wagner’s Ring), computerized re-mapping of images enabled the projection of an orthogonal wall-to-floor relationship for this meeting room.

Photo:  Robert Millard for LAO

Videos were also a major part of the projections used for the Schreker opera. Here is an excerpt from a video stream which was created off-line and projected as a visual depiction of the libretto’s call for gondolas skidding across the water to Elysium at the beginning of the third act.

Photo:  Robert Millard for LAO

In an interview with Lucia Mauro for Stage Review, Ms. Harrington revealed her predisposition as a Jungian, expressing her goal of “touching the collective unconscious” and adding to her reputation as one who “illuminates the [composer’s] vision.” Below is the conclusion of the second act of LAO’s production of the Schreker opera, the moment at which Carlotta reveals her just-completed portrait to Alviano.

Photo:  Robert Millard for LAO

Reinforcing to the audience the impact of the portrait’s impact upon Alviano does, indeed, “add new layers of meaning to the production, without overriding the [composer’s] intentions.”

Ms. Harrington, a highly creative and intuitive artist, has a “modus operandi” different from other projection directors. She is now working on the Lucia project in her own workplace and will arrive here a month before opening night, will plug in her own computer and software, and then proceed to add layers of visual and emotional impact to Donizetti’s tale of family honor, betrayal and madness.

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Author: Judy Lieb
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