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The lighting for Madama Butterfly

A production, a memory — By Rui De Matos Machado

Deputy head of the lighting department

“I know few other directors who place as much importance on lighting as Robert Wilson. He is present at every revival, requesting a significant number of lighting sessions to refine his lighting and enrich it with the experience gathered from other productions that have marked his personal development. I have worked with him on the lighting for Die Zauberflöte, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Madama ButterflyMadama Butterfly was our first collaboration.

When you think about the lighting for Bob’s productions, the first thing that comes to mind is the cyclorama—that stretched canvas upstage which helps to create huge and highly homogenous luminous surfaces… It’s a key feature of his aesthetic which works to define the atmosphere on stage. He doesn’t use it in a descriptive or realistic way to depict the sky for example, as so many other directors do. It’s a dynamic form of lighting which evolves and adapt to the ebbs and flows of the drama: it turns red when the bonze storms furiously on stage to reproach Cio-Cio-San for having repudiated her family; it takes on a truly poetic shade of deep blue when the child, in all its fragility, walks on stage… This interaction between the lighting and the characters is one of the characteristics of Wilson’s aesthetic: there is a continuity between the different components of the production, namely, the libretto, the music, the direction of the actors, the lighting…

A furious Bonze (Scott Wilde) enters to confront Cio-Cio-San (Svetla Vassileva) - 2014
A furious Bonze (Scott Wilde) enters to confront Cio-Cio-San (Svetla Vassileva) - 2014 © Elena Bauer/OnP

The lighting for “Butterfly” has evolved with the succession of revivals. The most remarkable aspect in that development is the trend toward cooler hues: He has less and less time for those warmer slightly amber-toned lights. He leans more towards blues. It’s a development which I can see in all his other productions. Does that mean that the atmosphere is more serious, more tragic? No. Not really. The crisp light blue of winter can be perfectly cheerful. If I had to describe that development, I would say that he is moving towards daylight…”

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