Baumgarten shines as opera company’s veteran lighting director

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Michael Baumgarten, lighting director for the Chautauqua Opera Company, works during the rehearsal for the Opera Scenes program last Wednesday at Norton Hall.

In Stanley McCandless’ A Method of Lighting the Stage, the lighting pioneer said that the role of the designer is to “give visibility where and when it is wanted” and to “control and conquer” the medium as “to provide a new horizon for artistic direction.”

For lighting director Michael Baumgarten, his job is a lot less grandiose.

“I’m a grown up, and I turn lights on and off,” he said. “That’s what I do for a living.”

Ever since 1994, when Baumgarten paired up with Artistic/General Director Jay Lesenger for Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, Baumgarten has been in control of stage lighting for opera at Chautauqua.

Like Lesenger, Baumgarten is celebrating 20 years with the Chautauqua Opera Company this season.

In the off-season — or “real life,” as he calls it — Baumgarten is the director of production and resident lighting designer for Opera Carolina, where his roles include company staffer, budgeter, scheduler and housing organizer.

Although productions like Madam Butterfly and The Ballad of Baby Doe rely on a carefully planned system of lighting, Baumgarten, after several decades in the business, denies his great importance.

“I try not to take it too seriously,” he said. “I wouldn’t take it seriously if I were a doctor or a lawyer. It’s just the way I’m wired.”



Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Baumgarten had a natural love for theater. In high school, he found his way into comedy leads, starring in roles like Prez, the skirt-chasing union president in the ’50s musical Pajama Game, and Mr. MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. Come time for college, Baumgarten looked toward Binghamton University with the aim to become an actor. However, his parents had more traditional goals for their theater-loving son.

“I was in Brooklyn, there was no choice,” he said. “You were either a doctor or a lawyer. In my neighborhood, the definition of a pre-law student is a Jewish boy who can’t stand the sight of blood.”

Baumgarten knew his sight of Broadway was brighter than his parent’s aspirations. But sooner than later, the freshman quickly realized that he “didn’t have the chops to become an actor.” Intimidated by the class-A quality that surrounded him, Baumgarten aimed to find another route to the stage. After one class in theatrical lighting, Baumgarten found his “shtick.” He would confess such to his parents four years later.

And today at Chautauqua, the lighting director knows his shtick well.

At Norton Hall, changes and fluctuations in lighting are carefully plotted out beforehand (what he calls the “light plot”) with what Baumgarten names “artisanal lighting.”

During a lighting run-through, Baumgarten is straight-faced: If he makes one wrong cue, then the whole show could be out of sync. Sitting in a makeshift lighting board on the ground floor, Baumgarten and his assistant run through a show song by song, minute by minute. With the director’s help, Baumgarten inches through a piece, recording lighting cues, calling to his test subjects on stage to move props and to stand under downstage lights.

All cues are numbered by Baumgarten and are played back in sequence and in a precise order of time in sync with the music.

Sometimes he’ll suggest a variation — “How about we exit on blue, instead of black?” — other times, it’s the director’s call.

Many times, Baumgarten said, he sees his job as primarily a means for what the director envisions.

“I’m sort of like an eye doctor — ‘Do you like this better or do you like this better?’ ” Baumgarten said. “And I show them different variations: If you don’t like one, you might like two.”

With Baumgarten’s antics, however, it’s not always the director’s word that controls the cues.

Some years ago, at Opera Carolina, one of Baumgarten’s daughters was sitting in the front row of the theater during a lighting. Looking at his kid and then back to the director, Baumgarten decided to cut a deal.

“If the baby cries, she doesn’t like the cues, and we’ll have to fix it,” he said. “But if she giggles, we can keep the cue.”

Yet it’s not that Baumgarten, like the directors he works with, doesn’t want tears. As a matter of fact, the lighting director is hoping, more than anything, to create and stir the mood of the audience through his lighting. To reap the feeling of spring in Madam Butterfly’s “Un bel di vedremo,” the “sun” has to provide sufficient warmth, just the right contrast. The intimacy of a night-scene duet between Horace Tabor and his love, “Baby” Doe, begs for soft, focused beams.

The ultimate role of the lighting director, Baumgarten said, is to create the “automatic response” the audience has to the characters and their music, “underscoring” the director’s artistic intent. If the lighting is wrong — say, warm, heavy light when it should be light-blue — then the wrong emotional message can be conveyed.

“We’re creating the atmosphere,” he said. “If we miss on creating the atmosphere, then the audience is lost. They’re spending valuable time when they could be enjoying the performance, trying to catch up with us.”

Yet only so much can go into the planning stage of a show. What makes Baumgarten’s job worthwhile is the “art that’s being created” together with the rest of the crew. It’s the spontaneous work of the imagination, he said, that cues the right ideas for the stage.

“It’s when you start trying stuff that a light comes on,” he said, “and you go, ‘Hey, that actually works.’ ”