Dialogues with Light

This is the article I wrote for the ALD‘s magazine FOCUS.

Lighting Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites” at Guildhall School of Music and DramaImage

The opera is based on a true story – it’s about the persecution of the Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. It’s not a happy story, as you can imagine, as so few true stories that become operas are.  

The plot revolves around a central (fictional) character called Blanche who is born into the world in fear and seems to grow up to be someone who is always afraid. It was this shattered psyche and the opening scene where her carriage is attacked and the windows smashed that gave set designer David Farley the starting point for his marvellous design. The show opens with a projected image of the shattering glass (one which we used again, both as a negative image and later, red with blood) which were designed by final year student Chris Jackson. Both director Stephen Barlow and David wanted the stage to feel closed in and almost threatening and offer the audience a sense of the danger and fear that ruled her life. This was achieved by two sets of sliders and headers, shaped like fragments of the shattered glass, which would move in and out to open up of close down the space and create the location for the many different locations within the opera. The main performance area was a raked wedge which revolved as required to further change the location settings. I fell in love with the set the first time I saw it and knew how important the light would be that helped to enhance the sense of fear and dread that Blanche felt and that the set created – and I just could not wait to get “stuck in”.


Most of the scenes called for a specific light source, and even if these were not actually seen, they were certainly alluded to. As with any good piece of theatrical writing, light is inherent to the telling of the story. It is written that it gets darker and more ominous which adds to her fear and flickering candlelight would cast shadows on the walls which would frighten her. Daylight and candlelight became the two main motivating light sources, but as she (Blanche) was living in a world that to her was full of fear, I did not want to use colours that were too realistic in suggesting the motivating light. For instance, I wanted daylight, but it needed to be an uncomfortable daylight – something that was just “off-normal” and unsettling. The same applied to the candlelight – it was warm and flickering – but it was not a ‘happy’ or a ‘cosy’ warm. The other dictating factor about the light that Blanche’s world demanded was that it was fractured and broken. This again, ties in with the theme of the broken glass that is established early on in the opera. There were a number of cues that we created for Blanche that would slowly fade in a gobo wash as she entered the scene, so that it was almost as if her mere presence was causing the light to fracture and break.  Depending on the tone of the scene, these were these adjusted in intensity to become more dominant as her fear grew and then would recede slightly as she was comforted, but never going away completely.


I love colour. It excites me and is what draws me to lighting design. Choosing the colour palette for Blanche’s world was indeed a challenge. My starting point was the broken glass. I thought about the colours that clear glass refracts when shattered – the greens, yellows and blues and took it from there. The trick was that Blanche, whilst being the central character, was not the only character, and so the colour choice had to also work and be believable in the worlds of the other characters too. I ended up choosing a range of colours that all tended to the greener side of the spectrum, as this was the dominant colour in my ‘broken glass’ approach.  For this, I found that the steel greens, green tints as well as the sodiums and mustards were very effective. Few of the colours were very saturated – the costumes were true to the period and nun’s habits are shades of black brown, both of which need a fair amount of light to ‘read’ on stage.

Textured light was also a huge part of the lighting design and a big part of Blanche’s world. Few of the gobos were ever in sharp focus though, unless they were depicting a window or other locational device. I opted for a “just-off-sharp” edge and often combined this with a split-colour gel to add to the sense of the ‘shattered light’. Linear break-ups were heavily used which helped to create the illusion of the light filtering through the broken timber or boarded up windows.


As is the case with any production, it simply cannot be done without the teamwork, effort and dedication of the crew. The team at Guildhall are fantastic – from the staff to the students. There is a huge amount of talent being nurtured there, from the singers to the orchestra and the stage team and technicians. Nothing was ever too much trouble and everything was carried out with the highest standards of professionalism and care.

The end of the opera is perhaps one of the most well-known with the 15 nuns being executed one by one while they sing the Salve Regina, their voices dropping out one at a time as the blade falls. We decided that instead of going the obvious route of taking lights out on each nun as they died, we decided to add light to each of them. A carefully focussed backlight and uplight was added in as each nun dies. Blanche runs in to join her sisters in their sentence, and as the last blade falls we opened up the stage, pulling out all the headers and sliders and opening up the cyclorama which faded up to a bright white using 2 x 2.5kw HMI Fresnels to achieve this. This ‘white-out’ echoed the sense of the release that she felt from her world and fear of life.

The music ends.

And then there were nun.

 Sorry, but I could hardly write about the Carmelite nuns without at least one nun joke creeping in. I know, it’s a bad habit….



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