White Light Hits the Right Notes at Garsington Opera

Founded in 1989, Garsington Opera is one of the UK’s largest summer opera festivals, annually held in Wormsley Park, Buckinghamshire. Like so many other productions and festivals this year, the outbreak of Covid-19 saw its entire season cancelled, with the Festival being postponed until 2021. However, as some restrictions slowly lifted, this meant Garsington was able to present semi-staged performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio last month to a socially-distanced audience. For the run, White Light was asked to provide the lighting equipment.   






Fidelio features direction, lighting and video design by Peter Mumford, who first created the piece very much in the style of his iconic Opera North Ring cycle performances. He explains: “The original Paris production was a co-production between Garsington Opera and Orchestre Chambre de Paris, conducted by Douglas Boyd who is Artistic Director of both companies. He and Laura Canning, Garsington’s Director of Artistic Administration, asked me to repeat the concept for a concert performance of Fidelio at Garsington, replacing the originally scheduled production that had been cancelled because of the pandemic. The original Paris concert production was very much constructed to emphasise the individual characters and much of the Fidelio opera concentrates on the thoughts and ambitions of those characters as much as the action and dramatic interplay.  In that production, although not strictly separated by regulations, the singers were much of the time both emotionally and, to some extent, physically distanced. It therefore seemed very possible to adapt that version to suit these extraordinary circumstances without actually compromising the concept or style. In both versions, the performance are backed by a continuous video which supports and illustrates the narrative”. 






Peter was previously working in Vienna where he had to observe strict Covid guidelines.






Prior to Fidelio, Peter had been working at the Vienna State Opera lighting Madama Butterfly, which was a restaging of the original ENO production. He explains: “It was great to be working out in Vienna in what was a very well organised set-up. The entire theatre staff were regularly tested, temperature checks taken at the stage door and a well-observed mask regime in corridors, offices and the canteen. This enabled us to rehearse and work in the theatre itself quite normally; all funded by the Austrian Government who were determined to see the Opera House reopened.  It almost felt like we had returned to normality for a couple of weeks!”.  






Unfortunately while he was en-route to Vienna, Austria was put on to the quarantine list by Gov UK so the plan to fly direct to the UK following the premiere to start work at Garsington had to be abandoned. So, in tandem with Garsington, and in particular Technical Director Steve Hawkins, a plan was developed to make it possible to direct and light the show remotely via Zoom.  






Peter’s set up in his office which allowed him to view both the production desk and the main stage.






Having arrived back to his home in Greece, Peter created a set up in his studio in which he had two monitors: one showing Garsington’s main auditorium and another to communicate with the production desk. At Garsington itself, a large monitor was rigged in the auditorium so that the performers could see and hear Peter during rehearsals. He explains: “It was a very surreal way of working but the only choice we had. As I was wearing two different hats, I would be directing during the day and holding tech sessions in the evening. When working in these conditions, you have to have a great team on the ground and thankfully I did. I was able to communicate with Steve Parkinson, my brilliant Lighting and Video Programmer, who was effectively my eyes as I couldn’t always judge the light levels on stage through my monitor. Similarly, Will Reynolds, the Video Associate, did an equally great job in achieving the look and feel I wanted whilst, on stage, Sam Floyd led a great lighting team.”  






The entire show was focussed, lit and cued up on Zoom, with Peter drawing up a clear plan and focus notes before sending these across. He comments: “The show features an ensemble of 14 players so it was an opportunity to light them individually in a way that you wouldn’t light a full orchestra. Of course they were very much a part of the overall stage picture and it was great to be able to achieve both a visual and musical blending between singers and players in a way that you can’t always do with a ‘fully’ staged opera. The lighting rig itself wasn’t actually that complex – a mixture of Lustr Profiles and MAC Encores which gave me a nice flexibility in terms of colour and also in achieving a fast focus”. 






The show received acclaim from critics and audience members alike.






Fidelio recently finished its run, for which it both sold out and received fantastic reviews. It proved to be a great opportunity for Peter to not only revisit a previous production but also work during a time when live performance has become a rarity. He comments: “It really was a brilliant experience to work at Garsington. I’ll be honest and say this is obviously not the way I would want to collaborate or work in the future but in this instance it was the only way we could make it happen. Thankfully, we had a brilliant team, both on and off stage, who created something quite special and unique in these perpetually trying times”. 






Photos courtesy of Johan Persson and Peter Mumford.




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