Projecting the Reflected Soul

by Michael Eddy
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San Francisco Opera’s Mirror Solution for Don Giovanni

San Francisco Opera’s General Director Matthew Shivlock and Stage Director Jacopo Spirei envisioned a new concept for the recent re-mount of SFO’s 2011 Don Giovanni. They wanted to incorporate projections into an array of large mirrors that reflected the true quality of the characters’ souls. To help them realize this, they brought in stage designer and conceptual artist, Tommi Brem who, though no stranger to opera work was making his SFO debut. Brem worked closely with the SFO technical team including Associate Technical Director, Ryan O’Steen. Stage Directions asked both Brem and O’Steen about this complex projection solution.

SD: Tell us about the concept of the mirror projections.
TB: Jacopo, the director, and I had been tasked with taking the elements of the SFO‘s 2011 production and create something new, which presented us with a lot of limitations. But I see limitations as a framework; like a suit the production has to fit into. In this case, since projections are involved, there is an additional set of physical and technological restraints.

While these are the outer parameters, I, as a conceptual artist, like to think from the viewpoint of storytelling, especially in a theatrical setting. The suit needs to fit, but I am interested in creating the backbone, the skeleton, and the flesh that will wear the suit. I seem to end up doing projections for productions where it doesn‘t look like it‘s going to be a standard process. 

Jacopo and I quickly agreed on using the projection to both augment the atmosphere on stage, and to help the storyline by presenting related, albeit contrasting imagery. At times, the projections are just very faint and actually quite easy to miss, while in other moments they become a very prominent part of the environment, framing the singers on stage. We also used the projections to keep the Commendatore, who is usually absent for the most part, on stage. 

I had to come up with a projection concept that is not a fancy form of decoration, but that adds to the story being told on stage and works aesthetically within a framework designed by somebody else. And of course we had to organize and implement said projection concept, using some 20 individually suspended and moving surfaces that are impossible to project on.

This is another element that I loved working on, the dramaturgy of the projections. They work differently in different scenes. Sometimes they’re very faint, sometimes they are prominently framing the action on stage. I was very pleased that SFO went with this rather reduced concept, as it’s very easy to fall into the trap of adding more and more projections—just because you can.

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 How did you address projecting on highly reflective surfaces?
TB: It‘s not possible to project on a mirror. So while Jacopo and I were working on the concept, I also worked with the technical team in San Francisco to find a solution. To be honest, coming up with the concept was a lot easier than sorting out the technicalities.

I did some research to figure out a way to project on the mirrors. This poses a number of problems. When you project from the front, the light of the projector bounces off the surface, quite possibly blinding the audience; we obviously didn‘t want that. That‘s not even touching on the subject of: How do we treat the surface, so it actually picks up the projection?

We did run experiments with the latest developments in projection films that can be applied to glass to turn it into a projection surface. Since we wanted to retain the visual appearance of a mirror, we quickly ran out of options and the products we were left with simply didn‘t produce the kind of projection quality we were after. So after some back and forth, we went old-school and covered the front of the mirror with a black scrim. Aside from decently picking up the projections, it helped in other fields as well—it dulled the reflectiveness of the mirrors. At the same time, the mirrors still worked as mirrors. Some of the mirrors had another quality, they work like a two-way mirror. So if you bring up an object from behind, it becomes visible through the mirror, when lit appropriately. We used that effect once in the show, and with the slight haziness the scrim provided, it tied the look of the real people appearing behind the mirrors nicely in with the quality of the projected images.

The technical issues were sorted out in time, thanks to the untiring motivation of people like Ryan O‘Steen, and also Lighting Systems Administrator Russell Adamson (who not only worked out the projector positions, but also programmed the media servers and ran the shows) and their crews. The Resident Lighting Designer Gary Marder was extremely aware and forthcoming in adjusting his lighting design to facilitate the best projection quality. I also have to give credit to Senior Video Editor Francis Crossmann and his crew, who shot the material and helped prepare the files.

This was my premiere production with the San Francisco opera and I immediately had the feeling of being welcomed and accepted. Working with the technical team at the SFO was like becoming part a well-oiled machine. It‘s not just the accumulated expertise and experience that is remarkable, but the fact that every last one of the staff members felt like an integral part of the production and worked to help make our ideas happen and work on stage.