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High notes come easy on devilish contraption

Los Angeles Opera gives its 'Damnation of Faust' singers a lift on a gigantic lamp created by a visionary director.

September 21, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf

Picture this: a neo-swag fixture that resembles a Hershey's Kiss or a monochromatic Wayne Thiebaud cake painting come to life. It weighs 150 pounds, measures 3 feet high and nearly 5 feet in diameter, and has a steel armature covered with aluminum. And one more thing: This lamp can serve as a roosting place for singers.

You won't find it at IKEA, though, because this is an Achim Freyer original. The German theater artist is in Los Angeles helming the new production of Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust" at Los Angeles Opera, and as for the singers, they're Faust (tenor Paul Groves) and the devil himself, basso Samuel Ramey's Mephistopheles.

According to L.A. Opera technical director Jeff Kleeman, the lamp, which gives new meaning to the term "track lighting," is suspended by a 100-pound vertical pipe custom-fabricated at the company's scene shop.

Says Kleeman: "We built the track that runs horizontally overhead. The lamp travels left to right. It also goes up and down via the house fly system. There's a motor to assist it, but it's controlled by two people manually pulling on ropes. The theater's height is 95 feet, and that lamp, when it goes out of sight, is about 40 feet in the air."

The lamp took Freyer a year to design. It appears four times during the production (continuing today and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 2 p.m.) and includes a number of different lighting fixtures inside.

"Its genesis," the director explains, "comes from Faust being the prototype of our society. He explores the world for the purpose of using it. His studio is symbolized by lamp, skull, book and poison. It's through taking the poison -- and his delirium -- that the lamp as the symbol of enlightenment brings him to the seeming fulfillment of his desires."

Groves, making his L.A. Opera debut with "Damnation," is on stage for all but 10 minutes of the production, and he and Ramey wear harnesses throughout for safety purposes. One of the final scenes, nicknamed "Ride to Hell" by Groves, could be a Disneyland attraction. It culminates with Faust descending into a flame-licked inferno.

"I love doing stunts," Groves says, "and never worry about heights. In this scene, the lamp moves up and down like a horse on a carousel. It's like going to the opera and going to an amusement park on the same night."

-- Victoria Looseleaf

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