Designs of the Times

Projection design in opera was in its infancy when S. Katy Tucker went to New York City from her native Kentucky to try to become a video installation artist. She says it didn’t take her long to realize she didn’t want such a solitary life: “I wanted to be around more of a community, so I ended up doing an internship at the Metropolitan Opera right after college in 2004.” There, she met director Francesca Zambello, who asked her what she wanted to do. “Something that’s like set design and video,” Tucker responded.

Zambello realized that Tucker wanted to be a projection designer and introduced her to people who could help. Tucker was off and running, and while she admits she “got into opera by mistake,” she calls opera “a place that I’ve really been happy to be.”



Projection design is a rapidly growing field. HGO audiences have seen projections in certain operas—they were used extensively in the production of Wagner’s Ring cycle by La Fura dels Baus seen at HGO—but this season, they are an important element in three operas: Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, both by Tucker, and in a new production of Don Giovanni to be seen this spring, with projections designed by Luke Halls. Tucker and Halls are making their respective HGO debuts.

It’s easy to see why projections and video are becoming so popular. First, they make opera more relatable for a generation that is accustomed to accessing all manner of videos at the touch of a smartphone screen—and is more attuned to the visual world than the aural.

But there are other reasons as well. Tucker designed projections for the San Francisco Opera world premiere of Mark Tutino’s Two Women, directed by Zambello, which was set in Italy during World War II. Tucker’s job was to give the audience a sense of location and historical context. 

A big challenge with Two Women was that, because it was a world premiere, the designers had to do their jobs without the benefit of the music—it was still being composed! But themajority of Tucker’s work is with Wagner operas; indeed, she says his operas cry out for projections and video. “I think Wagner thought about projection design before it existed,” Tucker says. “If you look at some of his scores, he calls for things that could have been achieved only with video.”



The Flying Dutchman Cursed Sailor Projection Wagner is also by far the composer who is most associated with the development and use of leitmotifs—short fragments of music that are associated with characters, ideas, feelings. Even though Wagner was only beginning to use leitmotifs in his Flying Dutchman, there are some important ones that are first heard during the overture and recur throughout the opera—among them, musical themes associated with the Dutchman, with Senta, and with the stormy sea. When these musical themes occur in HGO’s production, they will be accompanied by the corresponding projections/videos. By seeing as well as hearing, the audience is better able to tune in to what the music is communicating, and in Wagner, it’s the music—more so than the words of the libretto—that tells what is happening in the opera.

While the mood of The Flying Dutchman is very different from Florencia’s, they do have something in common. Dutchman begins with a storm at sea that forces the Dutchman’s ship and Daland’s Norwegian ship to take shelter; Florencia involves a journey by boat on a river, and in one scene, a storm threatens to capsize it. The two operas have something else in common—supernatural elements. Dutchman is a ghostly love story; Florencia was inspired by magical realism, a fusion of the fantastic with the concrete. Says Tucker, “With The Flying Dutchman, the video helps embody the magic surrounding the Dutchman. It also helps convey the tempest and helps show the eeriness of the Dutchman’s crew, their ghostly quality. It’s a way to represent the ship in a more abstract way so that you don’t have to have a giant boat onstage.”

With Florencia, she adds, “The video helps take us on the journey Florencia takes on the Amazon River in a way that lighting alone couldn’t. And so we get the perspective of the ship; the ship rotates and the background rotates. With video, we are able to make the tropical animals fly and make the tempest more magical.”

As helpful as these images can be, Tucker says there are some pitfalls to avoid in designing and using them. “I try not to make video the diva; instead, it’s just another supporting role in a greater collaboration,” she says, explaining that when she sees work by other designers that she is drawn to, it’s because it doesn’t call attention to itself. “It’s supposed to serve the greater production and shouldn’t be the only memorable element. It should be something that works with the storytelling, with the lighting and the set. Anything I can do to help enhance the music or connect the audience more with the music and storytelling is always what I’m after—but unfortunately not what I always do!”



Projection Design for Florencia en el Amazonas

Tucker’s preparation with a new opera or production always begins by immersing herself in the music and the story. She had no music background prior to her work in opera, so this part of the process takes some time. She has to learn the score well enough to coordinate the placement of her designs with the music they help illuminate.

After that, she and the design team and the director look for moments in the music and in the story that could benefit from projections. They decide what the images will be and how they will work within the opera. Then, Tucker designs all the art. Depending on the scale of the project, she will create all the content herself or with a team. Instead of creating an endless stream of images, Tucker creates the content in smaller chunks that are cue-able. This way, they are easier to adjust on the fly—“slowing them down, speeding them up, changing colors,” Tucker says. “In opera, you don’t have a lot of rehearsal time, so you have to be able to work as quickly as possible once you’re in the space. It allows us to manipulate the clips when we’re in the theater so that nobody’s sitting and waiting on video.”

A programmer assists her in putting these “building blocks” on a server—a computer that tells the projectors when to show each image. Where to place the projectors is also a consideration. “Sometimes you have to do wonky angles with mirrors if you don’t have a lot of space. Other times it’s more straightforward,” Tucker says.



Tucker believes that the technological demands of the field of projection design are part of the reason why it is dominated by men: “While women are as good as men with technology, maybe some women shy away from it more,” she explains. But she adds that she sees more and more women coming into the field, and she describes one of them as a pioneer—Wendall K. Harrington, whose work has most recently been seen at HGO in Nixon in China and The Abduction from the Seraglio (both in 2017). “Wendall Harrington helped legitimize projection design, at least in America—I think she was probably the first person to do it on Broadway,” says Tucker.

Did projection design need to be legitimized? Tucker says yes, in some ways: “Anytime you have a new technology or a new discipline, people start out by being apprehensive. But everybody who has done it—and done it well—has helped to legitimize it.”

Her words recall the controversy in the 1980s over supertitles, the translations projected above the stage, which were once frowned upon by opera purists. Now companies are expected to provide supertitles. Who knows if they will one day be expected to include projections and video in their design toolbox? One thing is certain: As the technology continues to advance, we will be seeing more and more of it in the opera house.