NZ Opera

New Zealand Opera blog

Let There Be Light


When New Zealand Opera’s Head of Lighting was a small boy growing up in England and trotting off to plays with his parents, he became fascinated with the lights that illuminated performers and scenes on stage, and how tiny particles of dust were defined by the light penetrating dark spaces.

“The lights reflecting off surfaces captured my childhood imagination. And I found myself thinking about it, to the point where I sometimes followed the spot light more than the play. At school I took part in plays and did the lighting for them and by the age of 13 I knew where I was going,” says Jason.

He had set his sights on London’s West End and, still in his teens, plunged into its theatrical whirl to learn about lighting with some of the best “and crustiest” in showbiz. And there was none of the protective gear and harnesses lighting designers wear today when arranging lights high above the stage. “Being the youngest it was ‘shimmy up the ladder and don’t fall off.’ But like other trades you have to pay your dues.”

He cut his lighting design teeth on West End stage hits such as Me and my girl and Starlight Express. And closely observed lighting designer David Hersey’s magic with Miss Saigon, the musical based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly that opened at London’s Theatre Royal in 1989 to rave reviews.

“The more you learn in this business the more you want to learn,” says Jason who left the West End to become the chief lighting designer for a new theatre in Southend on Sea. Subsequent moves to the London City Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet were in pursuit of more learning opportunities with the continually evolving technology. They paved the way to the Royal New Zealand Ballet‘s door where Jason became Head of Lighting. New Zealand then became his home and within a couple of years he found himself assisting Bernie Tan who had designed the lighting for New Zealand Opera’s production of La bohème.

“It was a terrific production,” says Jason who is looking forward to its revival in Christchurch this year. “The whole design concept created great theatre. We lighting designers are there to fulfil the artistic direction of the show. To be effective, lighting design supports the drama rather than just following a procession of singers across the stage with a spot light.”

The successful 2008 production of La bohème will return to the stage for three performances 15–18 July in Christchurch this year. As New Zealand Opera’s Head of Lighting since 2008, Jason will assist Lighting Designer, Bernie Tan on the show. The opera will be staged in Christchurch’s CBS Canterbury Arena. A big space that could potentially prove a headache for the design team.

It’s a matter of scale, says Jason. You are dealing with greater distances from the stage so you need to put in more infrastructure. The lighting systems designed for theatres hang on batons. In an arena motorised systems are needed in place of the batons and they are designed on computers to ensure the lighting team has the right rigging and everything in place. The opera will also be staged in a more intimate format.

“Lighting design is a right and left brain occupation. It not only involves creating lighting to help tell the story of the opera but also involves being in the right place at the right time to ensure all goes according to plan. I learned a lot when we designed the lighting for New Zealand Opera’s production of Don Giovanni in the CBS Arena last year and how to best utilise the space and make the stage stable so the lights don’t wobble,” says Jason.

These days he divides his time between teaching and applying the artistry of lighting. To make it work on a technical and artistic level is all about teamwork, he says.

 By Susan Buckland, Publications Editor, NZ Opera.