Jake Wiltshire © Jake Wiltshire
Jake Wiltshire
© Jake Wiltshire
Among the many backstage jobs that have a huge impact on a performance but are not often talked about, is the essential role of the lighting designer. Good lighting can enhance a performance or completely change it, yet we don't often hear from those behind its creation.

To find out more, we spoke with lighting designer Jake Wiltshire, Honorary Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, whose recent lighting credits include productions for English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, the Royal Academy Opera, the Royal Northern College of Music, Bury Court Opera and many more.

How did you become a lighting designer?

I was exposed to theatre from a young age and was always fascinated by how all the technical elements of a show not only worked together to immerse the audience in an imaginary world, but also helped mould the tone and emotion of the story. From about 12 I would operate the very basic lighting for my sister's amateur dramatic club, and in secondary school I joined the student-run stage crew for school plays and student band nights. There was no formal training or adult supervision: it was a great environment to learn what lights can do without someone enforcing the “correct way” of doing things. As a teenager I was also a keen musician: lighting gave me the platform to visually express the emotion and rhythm of music. I never formally trained in lighting, instead leaving school and going straight in to the ‘above pub’ theatre scene working on comedy shows and musical revues. From there I worked as a technician, production electrician and finally as the technical director of the Royal Academy Opera before becoming a freelance lighting designer.

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

Lighting is pre-programmed and stored on a computerised console. Each lighting look, state or effect is stored as a “cue” in the console, and a full-scale opera can have a list of hundreds of lighting cues that make up the production. However, despite the amount of automation now involved, the activation or “calling” of each of these cues comes down to a person sat at the side of stage, following a detailed score with all the lighting cues marked out, and with a video reel of the conductor to keep on point with musical cues. This backstage role is called the DSM (Deputy stage manager) and the DSM will have been in the rehearsal room from day one. As well as making detailed notes about where singers enter and exit from, where scenery moves etc, they will also have an intimate sense of the director's and conductor's feel for the rhythm and pace of the performance. I often think of the DSM as a performer the audience never get to see! Almost always the true success of a lighting design comes down to them, calling each lighting cue exactly in unison with the conductor and performers on stage.

<i>Semele</i>, Royal Academy Opera © Jake Wiltshire
Semele, Royal Academy Opera
© Jake Wiltshire

Can you talk me through your creative process?

First I research the piece, read a synopsis of the opera, usually with any recording I can find playing in the background. It’s great to put a work into perspective: maybe it was daring for its time, or maybe it was written in a personally turbulent period for the composer and this turbulence might not be evident in the narrative but might be evident musically. Music by its very nature is fundamentally emotive, and lighting, especially on large stages, is the most effective theatrical tool to reflect, enhance and instil that emotion to an audience, whether it be by colour, focus, dynamics or rhythm. When the designer presents a scale model of their set, I draw a schematic of where my lights will be positioned. Once the set has been built, before the cast is involved, we have a couple of ‘lighting sessions’ – a chance for the Director and myself to set out the key themes and tone for the piece. I am always more concerned with identifying the emotional core and tone of a piece, rather than rooting the lighting in a time or place. When the singers arrive for rehearsals, this gives me a chance to add the detail to the lighting and allows the whole team to homogenise all the technical elements.

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

The most difficult challenge is often the most obvious: where to put the lights around the stage. For a light to see the stage or a performer, it can’t be blocked or hidden. Stage lighting is rarely made up of one source, and a lighting state is a finely tuned balance of light from a myriad of sources from a plethora of locations. But if we operated in a world where lighting could have first pick of stage real estate, we’d end up with shows with no scenery and only one person singing. Collaboration with the set designer, the director, choreographer and costume designer are essential: a simple wide brimmed hat casting big shadows on a performer's face can sometimes be the bane of my existence.

What makes a lighting design ‘good’?

Lighting is about emphasising the sentiment of the scene, especially in opera, where the audience might not speak the language being sung nor wish to be removed from the moment by having to read the surtitles. Lighting heightens our emotional feelings – be it beautiful, violent, chaotic or calming. It’s often easier to compare a lighting designer with a director of photography on a film set: imagine judging how a film is edited, the shots, angles and composition of the image. A lighting designer is doing the same, but in a live context, choosing what the audience see, what elements of the image take priority and carving out a narrative between two characters on a stage filled with many people, all with possibly conflicting motivations. I’m a firm believer in dramatic lighting for a dramatic art form. I like to sculpt the performers in cross light so they almost float in an ethereal world surrounded by colour.

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

Figaro is such a great piece, I've lit it and seen it many times, but if staged traditionally it can be a bit dull to light. A few years ago I got to light long-time collaborator John Ramster’s fantastic production for Turku Opera in Finland. Set in a 1930’s film studio, the concept gave us the freedom to run riot with the staging, jumping from film studio shoots to actors trailers and in and out of different film genres and locations. More recently, working with Director Olivia Fuchs and Designer takis, I lit a fantastic modern staging of Semele. A phenomenal concept and setting provided so many opportunities to add visually to the piece. The highlight was the penultimate chorus, as Semele dies: in our version she turned to dust through exposure helped by giant photography flash lights, a play on Jupiter’s lighting bolts. It was thrilling to visually punctuate each chorus line with an almighty bright flash from the photo light flash cannons. I also love lighting Director Daisy Evans site-specific, immersive opera productions. The audience move around the set with the cast, the music to be listened on headphones. Already a sensory and deeply emotive overload, it gives loads of opportunity for lighting to go from stylised naturalism to hyper-emotional, deep colour choices.

<i>Flight</i>, Royal Academy Opera © Jake Wiltshire
Flight, Royal Academy Opera
© Jake Wiltshire

Has your job changed much in recent years, technology-wise?

The advancement of LED technology is a force for good: as well as its sustainability credentials, light sources can now be built in and hidden in all sorts of cramped and awkward pieces of scenery and hand-held objects. I also love working with LED pixel technology, where, when used en masse, you can run basic video or animation over multiple light sources, adding both another interesting technique of transitioning colour or another form of movement through light. I’m all for more intriguing ways of reflecting the dynamics within music.

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

Things go wrong all the time, that’s what keeps the adrenaline pumping and the never-ending thrill of live performance. I never grow tired of knowing however beautifully calm and graceful the show looks out front to an audience, there’s an army of people working back stage, paddling away, averting disaster throughout the show. Light bulbs blow, performers stand in the wrong place, scenery that has worked perfectly for every rehearsal and preceding performance suddenly decides not to work... but 99% of the time the audience would never know. On more than one occasion the house lights have gone down, the house curtain has flown out and rather than moody, evocative lighting the over stage flood lights have been left on. Also in the world of automated lighting there’s nothing worse than finding your Act 3 high-emotion aria lit accidentally in bubble-gum pink because the colour wheel in the light broke down. In rehearsals, you can stop and fix these problems, but in a performance you just have to watch through your fingers and hope that the audience know that was not an artistic choice.