For the past five years, lighting designer Charlie Morgan Jones has lit the bi-annual opera at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. This year marks the final one in which the original creative team will work together, having formed a formidable relationship in 2014. As White Light has supplied the lighting for most of the shows, we thought we’d look back on the history of the opera and speak to Charlie about how it has evolved over the years.
The story starts back in 2014 when Charlie, not long out of Rose Bruford and still finding his feet in the real world, applied for a job in Birmingham. He recalls: “There’s a website called StageJobsPro which a lot of people within the industry use to advertise jobs. I’d seen a post about lighting a show called Dialogues des Carmelites at the Birmingham Conservatoire. It was quite well paid so I imagine every person who saw it applied! I was astonished then when I received a phone call from the director Michael Barry just a few days later”. Little did Charlie know that the call would forever change both his personal and professional life.
He explains: “Speaking to Michael, we hit it off straight away. It was a case of something just clicking and he asked me to come up to Birmingham and work on the show. I didn’t hesitate and accepted immediately!”. Charlie made his way up to Birmingham and, more specifically, The Crescent Theatre where the show was being performed. He recalls: “At this point, I was still extremely young at only 24. I hadn’t lit Avenue Q nor had I done Cool Rider in the West End. Walking into that space and meeting Michael and the team was the first time I thought to myself: actually, this is something I can do. I also saw viably how this could be my career”.
The initial rig for Dialogues des Carmelites was somewhat elementary, with Charlie hiring only 10 fresnels. He explains: “It might not have been the most extensive rig but it was perfect for this show. There was virtually no stage depth within the space and we had, maybe twelve profiles overhead doing most of the work. Thanks to brilliant work of all of the creative team, we managed to create something very special and I remember being really impressed by what I saw, from every department”.
It has always been the same team that Charlie has worked with at the Conservatoire. This consists of director Michael Barry, set designer Colin Judges, and costume designers Jennet and Alan Marshall. Charlie comments: “We were such a good team. We all just gelled and understood how one another worked and managed to do so holistically. I believe this is the reason we’ve collaborated so successfully over all of these years”.
Since the first show in 2014, it would be fair to say that each production has grown significantly. That said, Charlie is keen to emphasise how this happened organically. He states: “The show has gotten bigger yet this is all down to Michael and his vision. He’s allowed us to evolve by experimenting and constantly trying out new things. We’ve never, ever jumped into anything without thinking and, each year, the design comes about in a natural, cohesive way”.
The team have created some memorable shows over the past five years; so much so that it’s difficult for Charlie to pick a favourite – although he does have a few highlights: “One of the shows in 2016 was Riders to the Sea which was part of a triple bill. It offered a completely new experience for me as it was lit it in neutral colours with no saturation whatsoever. The story was set in an Irish village where fishermen would go out to sea and potentially not return. The music and setting demanded that we had no colour. This was a complete departure for me as I had always used highly saturated colours so it really challenged me to go out of my comfort zone and experiment”.
Another memorable show includes A Little Night Music. Charlie recalls: “This was a large, Sondheim musical which I loved. Not only was it a fairly big rig but the first time I’d ever used a Viper! I was able to try a lot out on this show too and take some ridiculous ideas which were then turned into a reality”.
This year is set to be just as memorable with the main show being an operatic version of Mansfield Park. Charlie explains: “Mansfield Park is a genuinely beautiful show composed by Jonathan Dove. It may also be the most interesting of all the rigs I’ve used at the Conservatoire. This year, we’re in traverse in the studio space. As a result, I’ve literally had to position lights everywhere in order to light the singers. It’s also an almost entirely LED rig, whereas back in 2014 it was all tungsten”.
Supplied by WL once again, the rig consists of 12 ETC Lustr Source Fours, 8 par cans and 3 VL2600 profiles, which Charlie describes as his ‘favourite light in the whole world’. The VLs will be working along two ends of the space as well as providing a centre special. Par Cans will be positioned as booms down the side, with four on each end and a Lustr at the bottom. The remaining Lustrs will be offering general cover.
Charlie explains: “These shows have allowed me to realise who I am as a designer. Michael has been absolutely fantastic in letting me light the shows ‘my way’, which has meant a lot of experimenting and testing what works and what doesn’t. To have such an opportunity in a professional environment is extremely rare and I feel blessed that I was given the chance to grow and develop in this way”.
Friends for Life
Whilst the shows have allowed Charlie to grow as a designer, it is the personal relationships he developed during his time in Birmingham that he is most grateful for. He explains: “Putting it bluntly, Michael Barry is the reason I’m at the point where I am today – he’s totally changed my life. He’s been my mentor and opened doors for me that would otherwise have remained closed. For instance, in 2016, he text me saying he’d recommended me for a job but ‘not to get too excited’ as nothing may come of it. I thought ‘fine’, but then half an hour later received a phone call from Pawel at the Polish National Opera asking if I wanted to light Tristan I Izolda. At the time, I was 26 years old and lighting for the Polish National Opera which has the biggest stage in Europe. I remember walking out onto the stage which was 30m wide and 80m deep and thinking ‘why am I here?’. He’s also responsible for recommending me to the wonderful Amy Lane who I lit Das Rheingold with at Loughborough this year; a role I will continue with the rest of The Ring Cycle until 2023. Essentially, Michael has been incredible to me and none of the above would have happened without him”.
He continues: “I’ve also met my closest friends through the show. Jack Ramplin was Technical Manager at the theatre at the time and, over the years, he’s become the brother I never had and always wanted…as clichéd as that sounds. We holiday together and hang out during work ‘down time’. We’ve worked together on virtually every show since and he’s currently touring Avenue Q. He’s also my sounding board for every design I draw”.
This year is the fifth and final Conservatoire show that Charlie has worked on and marks, what he describes as, ‘the end of an era’. He explains: “Michael is now stepping down from the Conservatoire and, as we are such a tight-knit group, we felt it was right we should all do the same and allow a new team to come in with their creative vision. It does feel like a chapter being closed but what an incredible journey it’s been. What’s brilliant is how the shows and I have evolved simultaneously over the years and it’s such an honour to have played a small part in these productions. I can’t wait for audiences to see Mansfield Park and to end this brilliant adventure on a high”.
Photos by Graeme Braidwood.