In San Francisco, the world-class opera company is ardently wooing a new, younger audience. And you’d be amazed to know the technological lengths they’re reaching to get those younger butts into those red velvet seats.

In a recent chat with resident lighting designer Gary Marder, we got a deep look at the tech for this production. In the world of opera, “tech” implies a close marriage between highly sophisticated, programmable equipment, unique visions of design, and the art itself — music, acting, and dance.

Just as most people never see or understand the code behind the beautiful, simple apps they use every day, most opera-goers never think about the people, programs, and machines that make the opera come together.

But developers, in particular, tend to notice those little details. Here’s our interview with Marder about one of the most tech-heavy productions SF Opera has to offer: an avant-garde, design-driven version of the classic Madame Butterfly (you should really buy tickets; it’s going to be amazing).


VentureBeat: Tell our readers about the production overall.

Gary Marder: The thing that’s interesting about this production, which was designed by [world-famous designer and ceramicist] Jun Kaneko, is it’s a very simple set. It’s basically a deck that’s higher in the back than in the front, with a ramp and a platform for Butterfly’s house. Behind that, there’s basically just a white [screen].

There’s also four surfaces that are literal projection screens that fly in for different parts of the opera. We’re using two 20K projectors, each one has four 5,000-watt lightbulbs. The projectors sit at the very center of the balcony rail. We use a lighting control system called Mbox … it’s about as state-of-the-art as you can get for planning and running projections for a show.

But all of the actual content that we’re projecting was actually stuff that was painted by Jun Kaneko, so it has a very painterly feel to it. … The color that is used is actually very important to Kaneko.

Above: Another quite similar Jun Kaneko production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

VentureBeat: How does all this help bring younger, tech-focused San Francisco residents to the opera?

Marder: The thing that’s strange about lighting design is that if you’re noticed, you haven’t done a very good job. You want to integrate your work into the production and the design. But it’s probably also the most high-tech field of production design.

The lighting designer is using some of the most expensive, high-tech equipment. I actually use a lot of the same equipment that you find at a rock concert; but in opera, I don’t get to do the stuff where you actually see the technical aspect of it. A lot of the “flash” takes away from the singers.


I’m new to SF, so I’m still tuning into the community. I have an artistic background; I was in New York as a lighting designer for 25 years. And more people who go to the opera there tune into the music and less into the technical side of the show.

I noticed on LinkedIn that a lot of the web companies are looking for lighting designers for their game content. It makes it come alive better to have someone who can understand lighting, it just makes it look better and more realistic. You want to make shadows look real; you want to make color; you think about light sources so that you get directional light. If you’re in a castle with a torch, a light designer would make those frames look actually lit by the torch, not just a simple cartoon.

How does tech support the unique design for this production?

Marder: It’s color and having the ability to pick colors that are within [Kaneko’s] palette and having the equipment to change colors easily. You can actually speak in the language, “I think the blue needs a little more red in it.” And that’s much easier to do than it was even 10 years ago because of this ability to mix colors.

Madama Butterfly lighting tech

Direction of light [in this production of Butterfly] isn’t as important as in a classical production. It’s about illuminating the art and making it a sculptural piece rather than a literal piece. It’s gonna be very different than the production of La Traviata — light coming from windows, candelabras. That’s very traditional. This is flatter, and we’re more worried about the color.

It really is the most technical aspect of theatre, lighting design. We really are state-of-the-art in equipment, especially in SF, much more so than the other disciplines.

It’s kind of funny with Traviata. I spent a lot of time in Europe with the [New York Metropolitan Opera]. We did a Wagner piece with a very traditional production, a little [European] street — and you would travel around Germany and see streets exactly like that. But in Europe, they do much more avant garde productions. They walk outside and they see [classical] sets. They have the castles and the little streets, and they want something different.

madama Butterfly design