It’s the tale of a woman trekking from New York City to northwestern B.C. in the 1920s, as recalled by an elderly woman in the 1980s. How, exactly, do you squeeze a story like this into the confines of a stage? Such was the task of Kelly Robinson, director of Vancouver Opera’s Lillian Alling, which runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (October 16), Tuesday (October 19), and October 21 and 23.
He says it’s one thing to dramatize the journey, “but it’s another to feel the scale of it, particularly within the context of the period,” he acknowledges in a phone call with the Straight. Thankfully for Robinson, he had technology on his side. “An early decision was that we would use projections as a way of capturing a sense of place and a sense of time,” he reveals.
But don’t get the wrong idea; this isn’t anything akin to a slide show. “We’re trying to capture the sense of the emotional weight, rather than merely a specific place,” Robinson explains of the multilayered landscape images that evoke the journey from Ellis Island through the North Dakota grasslands and into the Pacific wilderness. “It really has a sense of impressionism and, in some cases, even expressionism.”¦It’s not just a matter of just selecting photography, it’s really about designing an image and layering imagery.”
Multiprojection software called Watchout was used to create six different projection streams: four from the rear of the stage, and two from the front. Sometimes the projections are still images, other times they’re moving pictures, and often the visuals are layered upon one another to create depth. “I don’t want to make it sound like Avatar,” jokes Robinson. “It’s about creating dense imagery, so it’s not experienced just as a flat surface: there’s something deeper to it.”
The collection of photographs and video used in the production was sourced from a variety of places: on-line archives, libraries, photo agencies, as well as original material collected for the opera by videographer Tim Matheson.
Deciding just what images to use, and in what manner, was a difficult task, confesses Robinson. In one scene, he describes, the character Irene is stopped at the side of a road, the windshield wipers aren’t working, and she is telling her son, Jimmy, about Lillian Alling. “How do we keep those two stories alive within the context of being sort of inside Irene’s mind, also inside Jimmy’s mind as he listens to the story, and also being in a specific location?” Robinson ponders. The key, he feels, is not to overwhelm the performers. “The singer is still the source of the story, and the imagery and technology support and deepen and enrich the story.”
Coupled with the careful use of technology is a set design that allows the action to unfold on different levels. “Irene and Jimmy’s world is mostly on the stage level, and the world of imagination happens on the upper level,” explains Robinson. “But often they leave the stage to the world of imagination, and that then develops the storytelling.”
It’s a broad, sweeping vision, and the responsibility of pulling it off rests squarely on Robinson’s shoulders, but it’s a challenge he embraces. “How often does a company invest as significantly as this one has in a brand new piece?” he enthuses. “When you’re doing a brand new piece of theatre, there are no guarantees. It’s a gamble.”¦It’s costly, it’s expensive, it’s kind of crazy, and it’s also exhilarating and wonderful.”