Duane Schuler is one of the world’s most renowned theatrical lighting designers and a founding partner in the theater planning and architectural lighting design firm Schuler Shook. Over the past forty years, he’s brought grand stories to life through intricate, yet subtle lighting designs for productions at multiple opera houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, Lyric Opera Chicago, and LA Opera. Through Schuler Shook, he’s also worked on numerous renovations and major architectural projects from Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater in New York to an upcoming renovation of the Sydney Opera House.
Currently, Schuler is back in Los Angeles lighting LA Opera’s iconic production of Puccini’s La Bohème. His stellar lighting design reinforces both the gritty realism of the bohemian’s poverty stricken existence, while also showcasing the simultaneous “joi de vivre” of Paris in 1887. We sat down with Schuler during rehearsals earlier this month to discuss his career, work with LA Opera, and his current design for La Bohème.
What led you to pursue a career in lighting and theatrical design?
I spent six weeks as an electrical engineering major in Madison, Wisconsin, and thought, “Well, this is not what I want to do.” A year later, on a complete whim, I took a stage lighting class. The man teaching it had never taught before, but he was a wonderful teacher. His name was Gilbert Hemsley and he was a renowned lighting designer. While he was at Madison, he was asked to light the Bernstein Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. There were six of us in his class, and he took two of us with him as his assistants on the show. That one class completely changed my life.
When did you expand into architectural lighting and theater planning?
I was living in Minneapolis and often working at the Guthrie Theater, but still traveling a great deal. When my daughter was born, I wanted to be home more and traveling less, so I started the consulting business. My first major project was renovating the World Theater in St Paul, where Garrison Keillor did his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. I was also designing regularly for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. While in Chicago I met Bob Shook who had also recently started a similar company. We decided to join forces and are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Schuler Shook this year. We now have offices in Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, and Melbourne.
Expanding into the consulting world was great. But, I loved lighting opera and saying no to projects tore at my heartstrings. So I started saying yes to a few more operas, while my business partners kept the architectural side going. It all worked, and we have now designed hundreds of architectural lighting projects and many theaters, including the renovation of the Civic Opera House in Chicago, the Marion McCaw Opera House in Seattle, Hamer Hall in Melbourne, Australia, and we were just hired for the renovation of the Sydney Opera House.
What was your first show at LA Opera?
My first experience with LA Opera was in 1989, three years after it was founded, designing the lighting for a production of Rossini’s Tancredi from the Lyric Opera in of Chicago. It’s been a great pleasure to continue to work here and watch the company grow. Today, it’s one of the leading opera companies in the US.
What’s your process when you’re creating a design for a production?
With this production, the Director Peter Kazaras and I sat down to discuss how he wanted to present this classic opera. It’s known and loved by many, and Peter wanted to tell the story with respect and clarity. We talked about what the overall feel should be, the time of day, where major events would be happening on the stage, etc. After our discussions I went back to my studio and designed a lighting plan—a drawing that includes the type of light fixtures; where they should be mounted in the theater; the color filters; where they will focus; etc. I sent that information to the theater two months ago. Over the last week, the crew has been hanging that lighting equipment as the scenery is being loaded into the theater. Today we will start to focus all of the lighting fixtures and then we will start writing light cues. Over the next few days we will build a series of light cues that are different looks that are appropriate for each moment of the opera. These cues are recorded in a lighting control desk, and the stage manager is given a placement in the score for each cue.
How did you go about lighting La Bohème?
Ideally, everything I do with lighting helps tell the story. This opera makes you care about the characters and lighting can reinforce that. What I love about opera is that the score often tells you when a light cue is needed. For example, if there’s a death and the composer puts a key change in the composition, there really should be a light cue to reinforce the musical moment. The audience may or may not be aware of the light cue, but the change will enhance their experience. As a lighting designer, I want to use light to help bring the music to life.
For more information and to purchase tickets to La Bohème, click here.