Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      April 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 1


By Nick Riddle

Pinned to the notice board outside the office of Allen White, professor of music and lighting designer at the IU School of Music in Bloomington, is an old New Yorker cover by Sempé. It’s a theater scene. Performers in leotards are depicted in various attitudes. In the wings, members of the technical crew strike equally graceful poses as they go about their tasks. Putting on a show is an art—and that holds true for lighting and sound just as much as for the business onstage.

“We have to work closely with everyone involved in a production,” White says. “We rely on the designer to come up with a set that we can get light into. By the same token, all of the efforts of the scenic people wouldn’t be visible without lighting.”

An obvious point, perhaps, but lighting a production involves far more than pointing a few spots at the scenery. The interaction runs deeper, to the music itself.

“The lighting is controlled by the music,” White explains, “or it should be, if it’s done well. The first question I ask my classes is, ‘What does the music tell you?’”

He uses Tosca as an example, because of its many contrasts in mood. “In Act One, you move from the drama of the escaped prisoner to a Te Deum with the chorus; in Act Two, when Tosca stabs Scarpia, the music fades and so does the light, because the sun is setting. Act Three begins before the dawn and ends with Tosca throwing herself off the battlements against a full, bright sky.”

He encourages his students to study chiaroscuro (the art of light and shadow) and to respond to the rhythm and intensity of the music.
“There’s the technical side, of course, but we try to teach the craft as well,” White says. “We go to some lengths to expose students to the artistic side of the process. My experience has been that people with a musical affinity are very successful in this line of work.”

Allen White, left, and Wayne Jackson are backstage wizards at the Musical Arts Center and many other venues around the Indiana University Bloomington campus. White is lighting designer and professor of music at IUB; Jackson is interim chairperson of the Department of Audio Technology, manager of audio productions, and associate professor of music.

Photo © Tyagan Miller

“The lighting people have a couple hundred years on us,” says Wayne Jackson, interim chairperson of the Audio Technology Department at IUB. Even so, the technology of sound has come on strong since Edison’s day. Every performance at the Musical Arts Center is recorded by the audio department and stored in an archive at the Music Library. But Jackson’s department also engineers sound for live performances. In contrast to the work of the lighting designer, amplification is used in ways that often go unnoticed by the audience—and intentionally so.

Pinning microphones on the singers is rare. “Generally, we don’t reinforce the vocal sound for opera,” Jackson explains, “with the exception of the summer musicals and a few works written for amplified voice, like Bernstein’s Mass and Adams’s Nixon in China, which use sound textures that make it hard for singers to be heard.” Sometimes, amplification discreetly augments the sound of ‘specialty instruments’ that are too quiet for the hall—a banjo in Showboat, for instance, or early musical instruments such as lutes, harpsichords, or baroque viols.

The physical structure of the MAC requires certain measures to be taken for the benefit of the performers onstage.

“The pit and the proscenium tend to prevent the sound of the orchestra from reaching singers clearly,” Jackson says. “We have ways of addressing that. For a production of Così fan tutte, we amplified the harpsichord and orchestra and fed that to a stage monitor suspended from a lighting rig. The sound has to be very carefully directed so that the audience doesn’t hear it.”

Then there are the sound effects. Opera has always made use of atmospheric details—thunder and lightning are a staple, of course—and amplification allows the director and designer to employ a wide range of effects.

“Sometimes we mike offstage choruses for a particular sound that enhances the drama,” says Jackson. “For Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudon, a character offstage speaks in the voice of the devil, so that called for some special sound treatment. We also came up with a gruesome guillotine sound for the climax of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Again, the nature of the MAC’s space presents a challenge to the sound designer.

“It’s a shallow hall with high balconies,” Jackson explains, “and that makes it difficult to get an even speaker coverage, so that everyone in the hall is hearing the same thing at the same volume.”

Jackson’s solution for Bernstein’s Mass was a three-layered sound system that “was just enough for coverage,” he says. “With multiple setups like that, each layer has to balance with the whole, and you have to give the impression that the sound is all coming from the stage.”

Every performance, indeed, is a kind of balancing act, with every department—sound, lighting, costumes, sets, musicians, dancers—working together onstage and off. The MAC’s facilities offer a peerless training ground for students, who learn to collaborate on a grand scale.

“This is the most sophisticated place they’ll ever work,” White says. “For sheer size, it’s hard to beat. It’s much harder to expand your horizons than to work with smaller resources—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The MAC is so big that they learn to handle anything.”

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