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A Most Successful Balance: Lighting Designer Christina R. Giannelli

Lisa Mulcahy • April 2020DesignIn the Limelight • March 25, 2020

Christina R. Giannelli has earned the respect of countless peers and audiences for her elegant and powerful creativity and style. Giannelli has designed unique, original lighting for many prestigious ballets, including works by Julia Adam, Christopher Bruce, Jorma Elo, Donald McHale, Kenneth McMillan, Trey McIntyre, Dennis Nahat, Ben Stevenson, Glen Tetley, Natalie Weir, Stanton Welch, and Lila York, in addition to many others. Giannelli has served as a coach at the Kairos Foundation’s More to Life program. She has also served as an artist and board member at DiverseWorks and was the resident lighting designer for Houston Grand Opera, Cleveland-San Jose Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater, Houston Ballet and most recently, for the Metropolitan Opera. Giannelli has also designed extensively for other ballet and opera companies throughout the United States and abroad. Her opera credits span over a dozen productions with Houston Grand Opera, as well as premieres and revivals for Dallas Opera, Portland Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Virginia Opera, and others. Giannelli holds a BA in History of Art and Theatre Studies from Yale University. Her favorite kind of work always includes lighting new works, as well as performing arts pieces that blend multiple art forms. Giannelli’s achievements also include being founding director of Dance Source Houston, a service organization that supports and promotes Contemporary Dance in Houston.

Designer Christina Giannelli (Photo: Lynn Lane)

The secret to Giannelli’s success? She understands the human side of the arts and knows herself innately as an artist. She also has a strong commitment to maintaining a centered and balanced life in all ways. Here, she shares her viewpoints, advice, and mindset when it comes to reaching her personal definition of individual achievement—let her example enlighten and inspire your work as well.

Color and Collaboration
Giannelli’s love of theater began quite early. “I went to a wonderful summer camp,” she says. “When I was nine; I was in a production of Aladdin. I just loved rehearsing for it; being part of it!” She also became taken with the beauty of stage pictures at a young age. “Also, when I was eight, I had seen Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was just so entranced by the whole thing,” she enthuses. “I went home from that production and just started painting; I was so inspired by it. In general, I was inspired by the culturally rich childhood I had in New York City, and I was fortunate to go to a school were the arts were taught.”

When it came to discovering the magic of lighting, Giannelli enjoyed that experience early on as well. “The lighting bug hit me in high school,” she recalls. “An Off-Off Broadway company used the parish at our church, and I volunteered to work with them. I was an electrician and ran the lighting board. Counting cues by watching the stage— it was totally hands-on. I found I loved lighting because it felt to me like the idea of painting in time and space. I also loved the collaborative structure of theater from the start. I loved that it was a group effort—I loved the shared experience.”

Giannelli found that her early appreciation for visual art—harkening back to those treasured hours painting as a child—carried through to her early learning experiences observing stage tableaus, and learning to work on plots. “The idea of positive and negative space, of hue, color, contrast—all of the elements of art really apply to my approach as a lighting designer,” Giannelli explains. “My undergraduate degree is of course in the history of art, and to this day, I get out to museums and spend hours and hours looking at paintings when I get the chance. That’s part of my discipline—to get out and just look at things.”

Giannelli designed the lighting for Christopher Bruce’s Hush for the Houston Ballet
(Photo: Amitava Sarkar)

Giannelli threw herself into learning anything and everything she could about the discipline of design. “I never did a graduate degree, but I was able to audit graduate lighting classes,” she says. “Then I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Chenault Spence, the esteemed resident lighting designer at Alvin Ailey as an assistant. Chenault said, ‘When you assist, you’re not only learning tech, but you have the opportunity to look at something through someone’s eyes’—that has always stayed with me. He was doing a lot of work with emerging choreographers—he would throw a plot at me, I would get it honed and focused, and then he would come in and cue and I would stage manage—what an extraordinary sense of color his work has! At Williamstown, I had a host of wonderful mentors. Other designers I’ve learned so much from include Pat Collins, Ken Billington, Tom Skelton, who I took classes with at Yale and who was so generous with his comments, Jennifer Tipton, Duane Schuler, and Tony Tucci.” 

The Value of Curiosity
The need and desire to be proactive about learning what you don’t know has always been a crucial step in Giannelli’s career trajectory. “What I’ve always found to be true is, you need to have the ability to ask questions,” says Giannelli. “Don’t be afraid to do that. When I don’t ask questions is when I get into trouble. It’s so important not to assume you know the answer—making assumptions always gets me into trouble. You shouldn’t be afraid if you don’t know the answer to something. Just connect yourself to people who do! We are in a field where people love what they do, and love to share their knowledge. Never be afraid of approaching those people whose work you admire—invite them to have coffee and talk, or ask if you can watch them work.”

Giannelli has also always relished the chance to do deep research dives on any production she can. “Do your preparation,” urges Giannelli. “Each show is an opportunity to learn about a world you didn’t know about. Learn about the author of a play; learn about the history of a play. Whether any piece of material you explore informs your work, it will definitely enlarge your knowledge.”

Giannelli has also found that the directions her personal life have taken has changed and informed her work and taught her more about process. “Life unfolds,” Giannelli muses. “I’m at the point in mine where I had a lot of family responsibilities, and also a side business that demanded a lot of my time. My primary job was as resident lighting designer at the Houston Ballet, but now I’m 100% freelance. That can actually be a little bit annoying, because every company does things differently. Organizations don’t always realize they can conceptualize. What version of software are they using? What communication platform are they using? What terminology are they using? I’m enjoying getting really immersed in Houston’s small-to-mid-sized theater companies. It’s so much fun to work on a bunch of different theater pieces and musicals! I do miss being part of a ballet company. I would love to get back to working in larger venues. And major opera—I miss you! But I have a lot of summer festival work lined up, so there is a lot I am excited about doing.”

Replica at Stages Repertory Theatre was lit by Giannelli

Taking Care of Your Needs Feeds Your Work
All in all, Giannelli believes that a well-rounded approach to work, life, and health is the way to do your very best work and be your very best self. “Yourself is very important in our business—getting enough sleep, eating well, not smoking, exercise, meditation. In this very fast world, you have to give yourself a healthy place. It’s never too early to think about having good habits.” 

Giannelli’s advice to new lighting designers that has sustained her through thick and thin? Be good to yourself before you take on anything else. “Our work in the theater is very demanding—it’s very demanding on our relationships with people out of the business,” Giannelli sums up. “We work crazy hours; we miss family events, we miss weddings, we miss Christmas if we’re working on The Nutcracker! So, take care of your needs—keep connected to the people who are important to you. Take care of yourself, again. Always know you will have to exercise care going into this world and this field—so make sure that is your priority.”  

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