Working in a Secret Language (Paule Constable lights Carmen)

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The award-winning lighting designer Paule Constable talks to Mansel Stimpson about her work in the context of the new Covent Garden production of Carmen…

When I asked to interview Paule Constable it was in part in order to make good my own ignorance as to how a lighting designer functions. What I did know was that there was nobody better qualified to tell me than Paule. She’s lately been the winner of the Olivier Award for lighting for two years running (His Dark Materials and Don Carlos) and she’s quite as much at home in the opera house (English National Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera North, Covent Garden, etc.) as in the straight theatre (e.g. the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and the National where she is a Technical Associate). Her range, which has recently extended to include dance, is further illustrated by the fact that her latest pieces include Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court, the acclaimed Peter Grimes for Opera North, the West End revival of Evita and the work on which she was engaged when we met, Francesca Zambello’s production of Carmen for Covent Garden.

Yet none of this would have happened without persistence despite an early attraction to theatre. “I went to school in a town called Stamford in Lincolnshire and I volunteered to help out when they redeveloped a Georgian theatre there. I was fifteen and really interested in sound and lights and backstage generally, never in performing. But I chose to do arts and sciences and those who did both at school were expected to become a civil engineer or an architect and neither would have made me happy. At that stage I never thought I would have anything to do with theatre professionally. But then after taking a couple of years out I switched to English and at various times I’d painted, done physics and maths and the history of art. So when I finally discovered what a lighting designer did all those subjects just seemed to fall into place. Then, having come into the performing arts world in straight theatre, I started to do opera and something similar happened. I’m able to read music and I had played and sung when younger so, again, this was one of those moments when scales drop from your eyes.”

Paule recently surprised herself by opting for opera when a questioner asked point blank whether it would be that or straight theatre she would choose if allowed to do only one. “The great thing about opera is that the presence of music means that you’re immediately working on a much more emotional level. In the theatre passion can easily be a sub-text; in opera it’s right at the forefront. With lighting you’re telling people about time and place, whether it’s winter or summer, Seville or London, but you’re also trying to find the right emotional temperature. Sometimes a stage is blank and light is relied on to tell the story with every shift in space signalled by the lighting. That happened with Schiller’s Don Carlos and with something like that the audience is going to be aware of it. But with Carmen I hope that they will find something resonant in the staging without necessarily knowing whether that comes from the set or from something else: it should be a sub-conscious pleasure. But I think lighting is that: it’s a secret language.”

Turning to the practicalities, Paule confirms that there are several ways in which a project can originate. “I’ve not worked with Francesca before. When she was approached to do Carmen she contacted Tanya McCallin to do the set and costume designs. Once Tanya came on board I think that Francesca discussed with her who might light it and because I’ve often worked with Tanya she suggested me, and Francesca was interested in that. But it’s a different situation with David McVicar: we’ve worked a lot together and when he approaches a set designer he will often indicate that he has me in mind for the lighting. At other times the approach comes from the House, as it did when Covent Garden redid Cunning Little Vixen and Macbeth in each case wanting new lighting altogether: it was they who said to Bill Bryden and to Phyllida Lloyd: ‘Have you thought of Paule as an option?’”

In discussing the lighting designer’s relationship with the director and with the set designer Paule first stresses that her role is to be reactive to what both of them create. She then illustrates her approach by further reference to Carmen. “The big decisions always relate to what the light’s going to do, how it’s going to tell the story. For Carmen Tanya has designed a single very big and monumental set. Consequently – and I feel that it’s also true to the nature of this opera – it’s not going to be small and busy, inviting you to look first here and then there. Instead it’s a case of using key lights. In Act One they emphasise that it’s day and it’s Seville: they’re at once big and simple, architectural. That comes from understanding the opera and what the designer has done with it: her palette is simple, so you wouldn’t make the lighting aspect over-complicated. If all of this comes from a kind of dialogue with the designer, then the rehearsals provide what I’d call a dialogue with the director, although much of it consists of simply watching the director. You see where they’re making the energy, if they want everybody to look downstage right or downstage left, whether they’re inviting the audience to concentrate on a small or a big picture. Watching at rehearsals you can absolutely see the director’s way of telling the story and I just jump on that bandwagon and tell the story with them. This production uses dialogue instead of recitative and Francesca and I did meet early on to talk about the importance of telling the story less by presenting images than through the people. The fact that they will be talking to each other discourages any cold, analytical reading: it’s going to be very earthy: dirty, visceral and real. In all of this we are feeding into Francesca’s vision of the piece and she’s incredibly open and clear about what she’s doing, which is delightful.”

To get an even more detailed view of the challenges that Carmen provides for Paule, I invite her to comment on the other acts starting with Act Two. Although set throughout in a tavern, its dramatic range extends from the spectacle of the Toreador’s entrance to intimate moments between Carmen and Don José including the famous ‘Flower Song’. “Once you’re in the tavern, you’re in the tavern, but the fact is that when you have lots of people on the stage you need more light, although the audience shouldn’t be aware of that. However, with a large chorus you’ve got lots of places for light to go: it hits people so that the colour comes from them and automatically drops away when they leave – plus when it becomes closing time you can suggest lights being turned off and floors being cleaned, and that gives a beautiful sense of an empty, desolate space into which you put Don José and Carmen.

“Act Three like Act Four of ‘Figaro’ is always a nightmare because it takes place at night. You have to find a way of creating darkness effectively. What I tend to do is to use a lot of dance-style lighting which comes from the side, so you light the singers’ faces but you don’t light the floor. The audience is not necessarily seeing a bright picture but they’re seeing figures in space. Also I need to suggest that you’re now in some remote spot up in the mountains, so here the set must suggest not city walls but a landscape – it’s very deep terracotta and I want to take all the red out of that so that it looks much cooler and makes us feel that we have moved from Seville.”

As for the last Act, it is as light as the preceding Act is dark, albeit leading to the final tragedy. So do you alter the lighting as the death scene approaches or simply let the contrast create its own drama? “I love the fact that it’s in broad daylight, in the brightest heat-saturated moment of the day that Don José kills Carmen. But at the same time one of the things that Tanya and I have talked about is the possibility of cutting across the vivid light by having a cloud pass in front of the sun during this climax. It might work or it might not, and we’ll have to play with it and see. Because I live by the sea in Sussex I know the light that you get when you have cracks in the cloud, so I think there might be justification for it. However I am a real believer in the idea that less is more, so who knows?”

That question may remain in the air but when it comes to Paule’s future schedule that is fixed, the need being to leave enough room for theatre productions which are not planned as far ahead as opera productions. But, although she would like to keep the present balance in her work, her special enthusiasm not just for opera but for Covent Garden is clear: “It may be a big stage but it doesn’t feel it. It’s neither brash nor unwieldy and it’s a space that feels very alive. I love it.”


  • The opening night of Carmen is Friday 8 December at 7.00 with performances throughout December and January
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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