Ulrich Niepel © Enrico Nawrath
Ulrich Niepel
© Enrico Nawrath

Among the many backstage jobs that have a huge impact on a performance but are not often talked about, is the role of the lighting designer. It is not just about making sure that the audience sees what's on stage: lighting creates the atmosphere, sets the mood, helps with storytelling and enhances the talent of the performers on stage.

To find out more, we spoke with Ulrich Niepel, lighting designer and current Head of Lighting at Deutsche Oper Berlin. For over 30 years he has designed lighting for opera productions all over the world, including Madrid, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing, Bregenz, Seville, Bergen, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Montpellier and more.

How did you become a lighting designer?

I am an example of the “learning by doing” principle: I started to work at the Bayreuther Festspiele as a light technician and learned nearly everything about light design from my teacher Manfred Voss, a very experienced man, who got really famous by doing the light design of Patrice Chéreau's spectacular Ring cycle. With him I worked on the Ring cycles of Alfred Kirchner and Jürgen Flimm, before I took over the job of the Head of Lighting at the Bayreuther Festspiele in 2004 and did the design for the Ring of Tankred Dorst in 2006.

Can you tell me more about your creative process?

The most important thing is to start from listening to the music several times. You then meet with the production team, learn about the director's concept and design the technical plans. As soon as the rehearsals start, I attend as many as them as possible, to get into the spirit of the production and to learn how the stage design is used. I then develop the plans according to staging needs.

What makes a lighting design ‘good’?

We want to create interesting, unusual, unconventional images that attract the audience. And it is always part of a good lighting design if the temperature of a performance is not always the same. To say it in an image: the soloists might not always be in full light, but it is better if they also have moments in the shadows. Manfred Voss said: “Light might also be dirty.”

Why are operas often so dimly lit?

I think this was much more the case in the past. Wieland Wagner or Herbert von Karajan often preferred dimly lit stages because they liked the darkness and the mystery that was created by obscurity. If you think of Karajan's Il trovatore, you hardly see anything like that nowadays. In the past some singers, like Lucia Aliberti, were also very strict about not wanting lights to blind them, as were some dancers who asked for “the spotlights not to touch their head”. But today the lighting equipment has so much more power and operas can be extremely bright.

Seth Carico and Jana Kurucová in <i>Don Giovanni</i>, directed by Roland Schwab © Marcus Lieberenz
Seth Carico and Jana Kurucová in Don Giovanni, directed by Roland Schwab
© Marcus Lieberenz

What is something most people do not know about your job?

I suppose most people in the audience are not aware how closely I work with the stage designer and how many decisions are restricted by stage design. If there is a plafond, or big side walls, that means that I can only use specific ways of lighting.

What is the most difficult thing when planning the lighting design of a live performance ?

It’s sometimes quite difficult if the director wants to control everything. The lighting techniques are so elaborate these days that hardly anybody who is not in this business has a perfect overview of what is possible. And then things get more complicated…

What’s your favourite opera you have ever worked on?

Korngold's Die tote Stadt directed by Götz Friedrich was the first opera I worked on at Deutsche Oper Berlin. This is an experience I will never forget. It was so exciting for me and I got along very well with Friedrich: in 1999 he made me Head of Lighting at Deutsche Oper Berlin. I also very much liked working on Dorst's Ring in Bayreuth in 2006 – also because Wagner's music is really special to me. More recently, I loved working with Roland Schwab on Don Giovanni, in 2010: he has a rich imagination, is very precise in his work and – as we say – “the chemistry is right between us”.

Korngold's <i>Die Tote Stadt</i> directed by Götz Friedrich at Deutsche Oper Berlin © kranichphoto
Korngold's Die Tote Stadt directed by Götz Friedrich at Deutsche Oper Berlin
© kranichphoto

What’s the most futuristic piece of equipment you are currently using?

It’s the P18 from JBL, today the most advanced moving light on the market. It is extremely bright and you can use it like a profile spotlight. These moving-head profile spotlights are electronically-driven and work as a perfect substitute for 30 spotlights moved by hand. This piece of equipment shows quite well how things changed in my field: in 1983, when I started working at Deutsche Oper Berlin, we had two HMI and normal tungsten spotlights by Reiche & Vogel. Today we have high tech material that only very specialised colleagues can handle. They need a very advanced training – and there are few people with that level of knowledge.

What’s the worst disaster you’ve ever had on an assignment?

My Waterloo happened on the premiere of Medea with the stage design of Karl-Ernst Hermann. He planned an enormous flash that was created by 24 individual flashes, one after the other. He had developed something similar for a production in the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and I even went there to study the construction. Everything was prepared carefully and thoroughly tested, but on the day of the premiere... nothing happened. It was a mistake with the lighting console and I died of shame.