Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in association with the Royal Opera House, Sophie’s Choice the opera is based on the 1979 novel by William Styron and subsequent 1982 film.
The storyline combines dilemmas and moral forks in the road with flashbacks to wartime Poland, bleak railway tracks and Auschwitz-Birkenau, as terrible memories unfold of a young Polish survivor of the Holocaust. As she arrives at the railway station at Auschwitz, Sophie has to decide which of her two children will be sent to the gas chamber. The ‘doctor’ at the death camp tells her: “You may keep one of your children – the other one will have to go”. She pleads, begs, then finally screams: “Take the baby. Take my little girl.” This is Sophie’s Choice.
Composer and librettist Nicholas Maw was first inspired by seeing the movie and intended the opera to have a cinematic effect – fluidity accompanied by a certain realism. When Maw told designer Rob Howell that he had written one note to ring out with every mention of the Holocaust, the Olivier Award-winning designer decided there should also be one element in his treatment of Auschwitz that should be present in every scene, so that by the time the storyline arrives at the infamous camp, the audience sees it at its most complete, though it has there the whole time. He chose an angle – 16 degrees: “I was looking at photos of Brooklyn taken in the ’40s and, of course, photographs of Auschwitz and the Holocaust generally. I noticed that the shots of Brooklyn Bridge swept down at a particular angle, which also cropped up in a lot of photographs of Auschwitz. I was impressed by how successfully photographers conveyed the enormity of the camp and the atrocity: rungs and rungs of barbed wire, huts disappearing off to a vanishing point, all at an unusual angle. I took that line and folded it around into a box in which all the scenes take place.”
The designer wanted a variety of panoramic images, including one powerful shot of Brooklyn Bridge, to be back-projected wrap-around style onto three specially designed black translucent screens, which followed the 16° angle – a tall edge front left, sloping down to nothing front right.
The screen positioned stage left measures 9m wide by 10m high and needed to be moved during each performance to allow scenery to pass through. What was needed was a projection screen which could be easily struck and stored between performances as wells as moved on and off stage quickly and easily during each performance, so a roller cyclorama was not practical. The Royal Opera House production manager, Charmaine Goodchild, approached Triple E for the solution. Normally track would be impossible for a screen this size, but Triple E’s Chaintrack provided the easy answer. The track’s construction allows it to turn corners with a radius as small as 25mm, so Triple E designed a hinged L-shaped truss to support the Chaintrack, from which the projection screen was hung. In this way the screen can indeed be tracked off stage during the performance and stacked in an S-shape just three metres long, on the shorter length of truss. Between performances the truss is opened out flat to be flown for storage. To ensure that the screen stays flat during use, it is edged with plastic strips which are flexible enough to follow the curve of the Chaintrack, yet hold it rigid when flat.
Once in place, everything came down to the quality of the illusion and DHA Lighting created perfect images from registered cibachrome slides. Because the photographs had to project across three sides of the set, each image was split into four sections – one for each side and two for the screen spanning the width of the Royal Opera House’s vast stage. The two halves of the image projected onto the back screen had to blend seamlessly, which involved adding soft edge overlaps, dissolving and merging the edges, as well as manipulation and enhancement of the original images where necessary.
Because of the wide angle nature of the images, powerful Hardware Xenon projectors with ultra wide angle lenses, were used instead of the PANIs usually employed by the Royal Opera House. With such wide angle projection, a millimetre error on the slide results in a very large projected imperfection. To guarantee accuracy, DHA created eight bespoke line-up slides to provide outlines of the areas each projector had to cover. These line-up slides then needed to be placed in the projectors, focused and positioned exactly to ensure that all slides that followed would be in exactly the right place. Used in conjunction with the line-up slides, physical markings on the floor ensured the projectors could be positioned correctly for each performance.
Adding to the sense of fluidity, and in order to avoid any jerky movements, the images cross-fade into each other – as one image is dissolving, another is emerging. To do this, the side aspects each needed two projectors and the back aspect needed four, all with slide changers to create a moving sequence of images. The complexity is increased because, even though the two projectors are in different places, the images need to appear in the same place. To do this, DHA prepared a range of technical drawings showing the exact location of the projectors required to achieve the desired effect and the images were off-set within the slide frames.