HOUSTON – "I don't think there's a difference between lighting theater and opera," declared lighting designer Ken Billington, who in his prolific career has to his credit 70 Broadway productions and 65 operas worldwide, including 22 for Houston Grand Opera. The latest is HGO's current revivals of Richard Strauss' Arabella, which opened on April 17 and continues on April 22, 25, 28, May 1, and 3, and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which opens April 24 and continues on April 26, 29, May 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10. Both operas take place in the Wortham Center's Brown Theater; Arabella stars the internationally acclaimed Renee Fleming, while versatile director Harry Silverstein, a frequent collaborator with Philip Glass, guides The Marriage of Figaro. "As long as there's an emotional connection," Billington continued, "if you have reason and context, then all lighting is the same."
Billington even went so far as to say that the principles of lighting are so uniform that they extend to his other design ventures: "Journey to Atlantis," Sea World of Florida's newest thrill ride about to be unveiled; Disneyland's nighttime extravaganza "Fantasmic!"; such ice staking shows as "Stars on Ice"; superstar nightclub acts for the likes of Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine and Liberace; 19 seasons of Radio City Music Hall's Christmas and Easter spectaculars. No matter what he's illuminating, Billington has the same objective in mind: find the resonance.
"Opera houses have a tendency to be bigger. But I think musical theater can be just as big as opera," Billington elaborated. While some might perceive a difference in depths, Billington doesn't. "Everything is just larger in opera, typically, so everyone thinks operas are more emotional. I don't think Broadway shows are slicker; it's just that more time and money is spent in tech. Opera can't afford 60 changes."
About the only difference between opera and theater, Billington said, is the process. For opera he usually has 1 - 2 years to design it. Operas are scheduled so far in advance to allow for their inherent complexities to come together; accordingly, Billington explained, "I have lots of time to contemplate." For theater, which is a more fluid operation, he is given scant months, weeks, sometimes only days, and in the case of the celebrated revival of Chicago, for which he won a Tony Award, six hours.
To Billington, the crucible to lighting, regardless of what he's illuminating, is feelings. Thematically, Chicago was "very hard, very in-your face, not pretty, and stark," Billington remembered. "It isn't meant to be beautiful. You notice the lighting and you're supposed to." Arabella, on the other hand, is first and foremost about beautiful music, and what compliments beautiful music better than a lovely atmosphere? So Billington's design is lavish and soft. "It's all color and cues," he said, all tones and timing as suggestion. Pretty postcards and passionate portraits are part and parcel with the playful production, Billington said; therefore the trappings of the yearning aristocratic lovers should get as much attention as Strauss' farcical characters.
"For Figaro you wouldn't know I'm in the building," Billington laughed. A sportive Mozart takes center stage. "The lighting and the scenery are totally in the background. They're never meant to be noticed. My color and cues are subtle reinforcements. You never stop to think: I can't see them, or God, that looks great." The comedy of manners, and servants, should take precedence over technical concerns and motifs.
When it comes to directors, regardless of the genre, Billington said, "I don't like working with those who give notes saying it's too bright or dark. I can tell if it's too blue or not red enough." Instead, Billington prefers to be advised about character motivation, scenic climaxes, and other dramaturgical aspects.
"The first thing I do is read the project. Then I come up with a concept or a thought or a feeling. Then I discuss it with other members of the creative team. Nobody tells me what to do. If I agree with their suggestions, and they usually come from the director, I make them. If I disagree, I move on. I don't want to be out of sync on a production."
Houston Grand Opera's revival of Arabella cotinues, April 19, 22, 25, 28, May 1, and 3. Houston Grand Opera's revival of opens April 24 and continues on April 26, 29, May 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10. For tickets, $20 - $175, call (713) 227-ARTS in Houston or (800) 828-ARTS out of town.
By Peter Szatmary