Music Marks the Spot

BRAVO 54 (Spring 2020)

By Judith Hyman

Have you ever considered what it takes to see a singer’s face without shadows?

Or what about if six singers were on stage, such as a Mozart septet, and each face has to be seen with only four spotlights?

“What we do, 3000 people see,” explains James Doede, LA Opera’s Lead Spot Operator. “When characters move, you have to move with them, stop when they stop. We provide enough light for the performer to be seen, without the actual spotlight being noticed. If a singer is in the dark, it was either intended by the Lighting Designer for a dramatic purpose, or else a spotlight is in error. My job is to guide the spotlight operators through the performance.”

Five floors up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in a tiny room with four spotlights aimed at the stage through a glass wall, I’m sitting with the youthful-looking James as he illuminates the complexities of his craft. He is on break during dress rehearsals of Roberto Devereux.

James explains that pulling off a successful performance requires his team not only follow the cues, but to utilize his sensitivity to size, color and intensity with the lights. His early beginnings as a musician contributes to his ability to be sensitive to the libretto and music to help guide the spotlights.

To stay connected to the performance, the Spot team faintly hears the music on small speakers behind the glass. “However, we can’t listen to the music or follow the drama, or we lose focus, and that’s when mistakes are made. That is distracting to the story line and embarrassing to us.”

When I point out that you can’t have an ego to do a job that no one will notice unless you mess up, James smiled. “A spotlight is part of revealing the magic, not being the magic.” And yet, as James explains, it’s still a performance job. Like the musicians, chorus or even a principal singer, James’s work is seen live as it happens.

And lest you think such a job precludes romance: James first spotted his wife in a very literal sense. He shone a spotlight on her while she was dancing onstage. They have been married 40 years and have two children and one grandchild.

While we talk, three of his crew walk in to man three spotlights while James takes the fourth. It’s time to get back to work.

Cover photo credit: Nancy Evans Doede

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