Gil Wechsler, Met Opera’s Illuminating Fixture, Dies at 79

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Gil Wechsler, whose innovative lighting designs brought to life more than 100 productions at the Metropolitan Opera, translated the visions of some of opera’s best-known directors, and also gave the Met’s staging a more modern look, died July 9th. A memory care facility in Warrington, PA. He was 79 years old.

Her husband, artist Douglas Sardo, said the cause was complications from dementia.

Mr. Wechsler was the first on-board lighting designer at the Met. It burned its opening show in 1977, and over the next 20 years, 112 Met productions, 74 of which were new, came to light, it rained, and cities were burned.

His career also took him to London, Paris and other international opera and ballet venues. Wherever he designed, he knew that audiences didn’t pay much attention to his contributions to a production – that was often the point.

“If the lighting is good, you shouldn’t notice it very often,” he told Opera News in 1987. “But in some operas, like ‘Die Walküre’, the light becomes a show. It should look natural – it should not shake, but be moved by it.

Fabrizio Melano was among many directors who appreciated Mr. Wechsler’s skills, but as he himself noted, audiences often didn’t like it.

“They take lighting lightly, and it’s an abstract thing,” Mr. Melano said in a phone call. “You can see the sets, you can see the people moving, but the lighting is an atmosphere. But sometimes the atmosphere is the most important thing because so much depends on it. And he was a master of atmosphere.”

One of the many examples of Mr. Wechsler’s handicraft was seen at the Met, where Mr. Melano staged Debussy’s play “Pelléas et Mélisande” with which they worked together in 1977. The set included a series of cloths and screens on which tree-like images were projected. .

“The illusion of moonlight seeping through the trees is created by a patterned slide placed in front of one of the lamps,” The New York Times reported. An article from 1978 About Mr. Wechsler and how he created his influence. “From viewers, the set looks remarkably like a three-dimensional forest.”

Joseph Volpe, a former chief executive of the Met, said he was an important part of an effort initiated by Mr Wechsler. John Dexter, the Met’s production director from 1975 to 1981, to modernize the look of the company’s productions. Previously, the lighting was usually done by the chief electrician, and the approach was simply to illuminate the entire scene. Mr. Wechsler brought nuance and visual effects to the play, including using light to make a soloist stand out and the choir to turn into shadow.

“The company had a nickname for Gil: Prince of Darkness,” said Mr. Volpe in a phone call, “because Gil of course understood that it was important not to flood the whole stage with light.”

Gilbert Dale Wechsler was born on February 5, 1942 in Brooklyn. His father, Arnold, was a stockbroker, and his mother, Miriam (Steinberg) Wechsler, volunteered at the Brooklyn Museum.

Mr. Sardo said in a phone call that while he was growing up, his family often sent him to summer camp in New Jersey, where he was working on camp productions where young Gil first discovered his fascination with theatre.

He graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn and studied for three years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, before realizing he had no future in business or finance. He earned a master’s degree in theater from New York University in 1964 and fine arts from Yale in 1967.

After graduation, he got a job as an assistant to a leading set and lighting designer. Jo Mielzinerand in 1968 he got his first Broadway credit as lighting designer in Charles Dyer’s play “The Staircase.” He would receive another Broadway credit for “There’s Someone in Every Marriage” by Georges Feydeau in 1972. Prior to coming to the Met, he designed for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the Harkness Ballet, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and other leading regional theaters and festivals.

At the Met, he has worked with Mr. Wechsler, Otto Schenk, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, David Hockney and many other leading directors and designers. Lighting for the Met is particularly difficult because – unlike Broadway, for example – the shows change weekly or even daily. Mr. Sardo said one of Mr. Wechsler’s achievements has been to develop accurate records of lighting schemes for each production so that a show can be altered more efficiently.

“Before Gil got involved, there were no reference guides on how to do this,” Mr. Sardo said. “Someone remembered how lighting should be.”

Mr. Volpe said that in 1979 Mr. Wechsler made transitions even easier by installing the Met’s first computerized light board.

His work on a production began long before opening night or even the first rehearsal; for an opera, he would study the music and develop his own ideas of how each scene should look.

“Lighting cues are always a function of the music,” he told The Times, “and in that sense the score is biblical. The music will evoke a sense of continuity from scene to scene, as well as a sunrise or maybe a gloomy day. When I track the score, some pictures will come to my mind automatically.”

But they didn’t have to be the same pictures the director or landscape designer had in mind; Once they all got their heads together, reconciliation would begin. In an interview with Opera News, he recalled a particular scene in “Turandot,” which he and director Franco Zeffirelli had designed very differently.

“Puccini’s score does not indicate when the stage was held,” he explained, “except to say that lanterns were placed around the stage. This clue meant ‘night’ to me, but Franco sees it in another way” – he wanted the scene to be staged in daylight.

Mr. Wechsler has also found compromises with set and costume designers and actors. For example, there was the issue of fire.

“Fire is hard because obviously you can’t have full stage fire, although a lot of operas call for them,” he told The Times. “We create fire with smoke, steam and projections. The more smoke and steam we can use, the better it will look. Unfortunately, the more smoke we use, the less happy the singers are.”

The Prince of Darkness didn’t just use the shadow to hide the choir; He used this on some older productions of the Met to keep the wear and tear on the sets from showing. This can be difficult though.

“When the score requires a bright, sunny day, we can’t do it. very bright, otherwise you will see where the paint has spilled.” “And we can no longer make it so dark that it doesn’t look like daylight.”

Based in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., Mr. Wechsler directed Verdi’s last Met production, “La Forza del Destino” in 1996. She and Mr. Sardo, whose relationship began in 1980, married in 2017. Mr. Sardo, Mr. Wechsler, was survived by a brother named Norman.

Mr. Wechsler’s lighting designs were used by the Met for a number of productions before performances were halted in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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