Maria Stuarda di Gaetano Donizzetti
Maria Stuarda di Gaetano Donizzetti, regia di Andrea De Rosa e light design di Pasquale Mari photo © Yasuko Kageyama

A conversation with Pasquale Mari 

Your debut will be with the Opera Andrea Chénier on the 7th December, at Teatro alla Scala; however, if you look back, what moments and images do you remember of your initial activity?
It is true, I admit, I feel this debut at the inauguration of the Opera Season of the Teatro alla Scala is one of the key points of my work up to now. I would have never thought, nor hoped, when I first began, that this would happen to me one day.
I also did not think I would have ever worked in the area of lyric opera; I did not even think I would always work in the theatre…
You see, the approach of a neophyte has been a constant in my work life.

I was a filmmaker and young critic when we founded Falso Movimento (false movement) with Angelo Curti, Mario Martone and Andrea Renzi in 1979, and our work was generally performative, site-specific as it is commonly described today, multimedia as it was described before, and our presence was required alongside our technologies (Super 8 movie projectors, slide projectors) on stage.
We had graduated in Literature, specialising in Theatre, we worked on stage in half of the Italian theatres. We were unprepared, we were taught the techniques used on stage, and were constantly told that no, we would never stop doing what we were doing… and that was exactly how things did go. Our one vocation was lighting, it was like a calling, I felt it when preparing one of our most ambitious projects, Ritorno ad Alphaville (Return to Alphaville), a new version of Godard’s movie, Alphaville for non-theatre spaces, in 1986. One of the scenes of the movie that we were studying, in particular. Suddenly in a large space of Godard’s sci-fi set, a long series of neon tube lights turns on, shifting the scene from black to white, and someone comments, “Oh, it is daytime …”

Pasquale Mari
Pasquale Mari, photo ©Marco Parollo

When you started, what influenced your thoughts and your methodological approach towards light? 
Mainly, what has most influenced me has been lighting for the cinema.
The black and white North European movies prior to World War II – Murnau, Lang, Dreyer – and American cinema in the 40s and 50s, in which the excellent lighting was often created by operators who had escaped the war in Europe. 
The grazing light on each frame in the movies of an experimenter like Josef Kubelka, who designed utopian cinema halls in order to obtain maximum concentration of the spectators. And last, lights in American cinema in the 70s on the roads (Scorsese) and in the great epic productions (Coppola). I remember an entire day closed indoors with the group of friends I mentioned before, to see the sequence of The Godfather, parts I and II.

Baccanti di Euripide
Baccanti di Euripide, regia Andrea De Rosa, 2017. | ph.©Marco Ghidoni

Who were your Masters? 
When I was a young boy I also used to go to the theatre. I still remember the charm, for all the senses, of the performances by Carmelo Bene, deep in dark black settings where light and colour became tactile phenomena along with the words, there was extreme technical skill and formal rigour. I later found these in the performances of Leo de Berardinis and in the stage lighting master, who was present every night personally, he was…
In other words, I acknowledge a theatrical imprinting which is tied to a detailed study of space that does not avail of large stage machinery and, for this reason, is guided by a distilled use of lighting.

From a reflection on the daily practice of making light written by you, I found the dimension that describes your thoughts about carefully listening to spaces very clear, and the image of a diviner searching for luminous frequencies came to my mind…
Searching the laws of space that govern the place that has been chosen for the action, following their coordinates, and letting them be a guide, leading to the birth of a more natural light: this is what I have learnt to do from the very beginning, inside, but mainly outside, the theatre spaces where I have been called to work.

Andrea Chénier
Andrea Chénier di Umberto Giordano, regia Mario Martone, 2017. ph. ©Marco Brescia

Let us talk of light through the boundaries, distances, and balance that unite and separate theatre and cinema. As a spectator, when I am in a theatre I have a feeling that the stage is a place that generates light in a perspective optical box, that there are moments when it seems to be born at that precise instant; in the cinema, light is reflected by a two-dimensional screen, and is however generated by a projector…
This is similar to the activities for the study and preparation of the lighting that take place on a film set, inside and outside. The close relationship of the film scene and reality implies an even greater rigour in the choice of the sources of light and their management, channelling them through the one luminous movie projector that guarantees the show in the theatre. I have been and I still consider myself a projectionist. I was one, because in the movie theatre I was in charge of the good focus and quality of the images that invested our scene and our actors from all directions, and I still consider myself one because the variations in the light of that single projector that makes the show-movie is a distilled form of a number of lights, both natural and artificial, which come together during the course of the making of a movie.

The way you used light in Buongiorno Notte (Good Morning, Night), the movie directed by Marco Bellocchio about the Anni di Piombo (years of lead) and the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, comes to my mind. There are a number of close-ups, in particular of Chiara, who is often only illuminated by a blurred circle of light that comes through the spy-hole in the door of the hideout. Here we see a suggestive and obsessive play of light, fluid shadows and blurred views, that reveal the gaze, face and distress, and the growing contradictions that Chiara feels.
Buongiorno, Notte, in which I closely worked with Bellocchio, has been a journey among the words in the title and those following them in Emily Dickinson’s poem entitled Good Morning – Midnight, which tell the story of a young woman and her eyes, seen from opposite ends of daytime and night. These are also the deeply human, organic, analogue themes of my work. Therefore, I felt the challenge of the movie like something decisive.

On one hand, the subjective part, Chiara/Maya Sansa, seen through the spy-hole of Moro’s cell, searching an evanescent focus and a colour that lights up and moves in the dark black frame, on the other Chiara’s eyes, the objective protagonists of close-ups that are the most touching I have ever had the fortune to see from behind a movie camera.
Above all, what I consider the best result of my career as a film-maker: the close-up of Chiara listening to a voice reading the prisoner’s last letter to his family, in the dark. This was obtained by letting the contours of the practically colourless face, emerge from an underexposure of the emulsion, and entrusting the remaining silver salts with the “hope” for the little light needed to make the eye’s pupil and the forming tears shine. Bellocchio taught me the hand to hand contact between operator and the human face, and between light and darkness, that movies are made of.
What we see is a woman face that becomes a close counterpart of those sorrowful ones depicted in b/w frames of executed partisans and of the Russian cinema, here called by the final editing to act as counter-melody to the crucial moment of a tragedy we all know.

Morte di Danton
Morte di Danton di Georg Büchner, regia Mario Martone, 2016 ph.©Mario Spada

Looking at the present, how has your poetry been re-encoded in order to illuminate movie sets with LED sources and in particular with regard to the evolution of digital movie cameras? 
I have expressly used the term analogue, with reference to my research on light, to indicate how I have dealt with the opacity of the movie film base, similarly to the darkness on stage. That is, like a material to work on, with techniques to engrave and to reveal transparency and visibility. I do not do anything else. I find a suitable darkness and I engrave light into it. The quality of this material is decisive, and when I had to deal with movie film base, I searched for analogies in its granularity and in the dust of the theatre scene. The digital sensor “documents” darkness, light and colour, in the best possible way, and increasingly precisely. It encodes them, transports them, and decodes each of them with a feverish numerical processing procedure. The digital Super 35mm is good mathematics. The 35mm negative is good chemistry. Even in the case of a smartphone camera, what makes the difference is the light. I deal with the light. 

How was the suggestion of the scene with an incandescent forest lit from behind on the walls of the salon born for Maria Stuarda? How did you obtain this light, and also calibrate a perfectly focussed lighting of the interpreters in the theatre?
The space and lighting in Maria Stuarda, directed by Andrea De Rosa, first of all display the painting and colour of Sergio Tramonti’s stage design. Yet another human artefact made of material, pigment and support, opacity and transparency. Just as for the words in the opera libretto (or a script, a screenplay), I try to enter the artistic images proposed by the set designer, to understand their language in order to then interpret them with light on stage. In the square space of the scene in Maria Stuarda there are two main forces, that of being closed and that of being open, the opaque and the transparent. With light, I played around with oil painting and water colour techniques. The light outside presses from the very beginning against the opaque and slightly opened walls where Maria is imprisoned, producing a perimeter of abstract geometric light on the floor. It is sufficient, with a purely theatrical trick, to lift a black cloth curtain and the light then flows onto the walls revealing the consistency of paper, and the texture of trunks and leaves lit from behind. We are now in the forest-garden of the second act.

In your approach and in the projects you have developed in the past years, how have you used LED light sources and fixtures? Is mixing and balancing traditional projectors and new technologies a part of your practical experience? I remember a recurring definition in your discussions, the “distilled use of light…” How does this method and approach meet and confront the requirements of the director, of the scenic design and staging in a lyric opera?
This is what I mean when I say “distilled use of light”. Making it flow from coordinates of space and time on stage or the set, in a severely controlled quantity and quality. Not much colour, a great faith in the possibilities of creating emotions from the simple modulation of white colour temperatures (and here the cinema and theatre meet) and the consequent choice of lighting fixtures with regard to the quality of their basic emission. These range from the incandescent light of a candle to that of a tungsten filament, up to the “cold” whites of arc lamps.
I started using LED technology only after the projectors were equipped with a sufficient number of natively white diodes that could be mixed with the other primary components of the colour spectrum. I am used to making light from a choice of as few components as possible; I do not believe in additive colour mixing, and therefore the LED projectors become extraordinary instruments for me only if they are also equipped with single sources of white light that can be measured and that are powerful enough to be used independently with a Colour Rendering Index (CRI) that is not less than 90. Having said this, I would also like to teasingly say that I will stop working in this sector when PAR stage lamps will be out of production… There is nothing as simple and versatile (and analogue) on stage that can interpret (just like an actor) a sun’s ray, its warmth, its capacity to materialize the air and objects. Generally, this “economy” in the use of atmospheric instruments implies an interaction with the director during rehearsals, where I try to be present as much as possible in order to be able to tack on a luminous dress that must not be a cage for the actors or singers, but must coincide, with no apparent effort, with their movements on stage, meeting them on stage when they sing those acute notes or recite monologues, systematically not using stage gimmicks such as followspots. 

Let us turn on the spotlights of the Teatro alla Scala on the Andrea Chénier…
Andrea Chénier is born from dark black. He turns towards it; he comes from it. The facades and volumes that are progressively suggested by Margherita Palli attract and repel the Story by exploiting the attractive and centrifugal force of a pivoting floor, almost as big as the stage of la Scala, which traces the vanishing lines and the origin of light from the surrounding darkness.
In Martone’s Chénier there is really a self-sufficient world on stage, where light photographs the action following the tempo of the music, and then again dissolves in to the black darkness. Ideally it is as if the scene is viewed from 360° and perhaps it is the opera where I have used frontal lighting least. This is because there is no absolute front, and large mirror surfaces reflect the world that turns around the crystal of the scene; at times, these are transparent, allowing a passage into what is beyond, behind, on the side, in front. And from the very theatre hall, with the rotation of the principal directions of light, the followspot projector, the main instrument used in frontal lighting, plays this time a role.
That ray of light, which pinpoints the tenor singing his first air, which ideally originates from the eye of the spectator, finds its counterpart in the finale, in a ray of light that, instead, comes from far behind the stage, an abstract sun in the sunrise that is evoked in the final verses of the opera and that wraps the protagonists with a light that comes from behind, calling them to their destiny. A frontal ray of light at the beginning calls for life; another one, equal and opposite, finally pull Madeleine and Andrea towards Death, and the black background is lifted at last leaving a blinding white light…

It is coming with the sunbeams!  
Death comes in the wake of morn!   
Death comes on the wing of dawn!   
With the morning golden light!

This article was originally published on LUCE n°322, 2017.