Met resident lighting designer John Froelich and his team (pictured above) play a crucial role in achieving the myriad lighting effects called for by the company’s complex productions, helping visiting designers achieve their visions on the Met stage. During the 2019–20 season, the in-house designers were proud to introduce some exciting technological changes for the company’s lighting system and looked forward to the return of one of their favorite stagings, Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved take on Puccini’s Turandot. By Joel Rozen
In the years since its Met premiere in 1987, Franco Zeffirelli’s resplendent production of Turandot has become a touchstone of grand spectacle and glamour, lavishing Puccini’s final opera with scene after scene of high-octane visuals. For Met resident lighting designer John Froelich, however, the production’s most dazzling moment occurs early in Act II. “It’s coming out of Scene 1 and into Scene 2 in the palace,” he says, pulling a thick binder of lighting blueprints off a high shelf in his studio on the fifth floor of the opera house. The palace scene—with its multitudes of townspeople and fan dancers, masked guards, and multi-tiered pagodas that tower over the crowd, awash with an overwhelming flood of light—has become an iconic Met tableau. “The change from something really small and intimate to something huge and flying outward,” as Froelich describes it, “is the most amazing thing. It creates almost like a hum.”
Such sudden, overpowering brightness—what Froelich’s assistant staff designer Justine Burke describes as a thrilling burst of energy that “you can feel in the air, on your skin”—doesn’t come from simply flicking a light switch. Rather, the effect is accomplished by an army of Met electricians racing to re-angle and focus all the equipment for the ultimate high-voltage effect. “They’re running around on every level of the stage to get everything adjusted, hopping between pieces of scenery that are also being moved at the same time,” Froelich says. “It's all for that one transition, all to amaze the audience.”
For nearly two decades, Froelich has worked as a proxy to visionaries like the late Zeffirelli. He thinks of his team as translators, harnessing in-house technology to help visiting lighting designers realize their latest ideas on a foreign stage. But he also must find ways to revitalize the Met’s classic revivals, some of which were designed with aging or outdated technology in mind. In those cases, the object is to understand the designer’s original intent and deliver on that vision while freshening up the overall look of the show. “It’s constant collaboration,” Froelich explains. “We’re not called lighting ‘directors’ or lighting ‘supervisors’ because, actually, there’s a lot of artistic interpretation we have to do.” While in the past the approach to modernizing a production’s appearance involved simply incorporating a more focused lighting scheme here or a more nuanced spectrum of colors there, things have recently gotten a bit more complex.
The Met’s stage lights just received an upgrade of their own, with a massive digital remodeling that Froelich says will give the Met “the most state-of-the-art lighting rig in the opera world.” The company’s original 1966 lighting system has received various improvements over the years, with added functionality as well as the installation of new spotlighting equipment. But the recent work goes much further. In addition to connecting all of the lights to a centralized computer system that will streamline production cues, the lighting bridges—the flown catwalks above the stage from which stagehands manually operate the lights—have all been replaced with more technologically advanced structures.
Such changes will enhance the visuals of forthcoming productions while enabling the lighting technicians to improve on the classics. “It’s a little bit like archaeological discovery,” Froelich says. “You might see some previous limitation, and then think, ‘Well, now we can actually do that.’” This includes a new and improved approach for the Turandot palace scene. “Back in the old days,” he recalls, “we basically just turned on every light in the building to ‘full.’” Now, the flurry of the past, with its mad dash to make things bright, will be more mechanized and efficient, reducing the need for electrician set-surfing and shedding new light on Zeffirelli’s masterpiece.
Joel Rozen is the Met’s Staff Writer.