Let There Be Light: A Chat with Ken Yunker, Sarasota Opera’s Resident Lighting Designer
Have you ever wondered how the Sarasota Opera stage seems to always be lit so perfectly? Artistic Administrator Greg Trupiano takes us backstage to meet Resident Lighting Designer, Ken Yunker, as he prepares for Sarasota Opera's busy fall season which will present Verdi's Rigoletto and the Sarasota Youth Opera world premiere of Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Ken Yunker first worked as Sarasota Opera's resident lighting designer for the 2007 season. His responsibility is to devise the lighting plots for all the mainstage operas.
Born in Oregon and raised in the northwest, Ken says that becoming a lighting designer is his reaction to growing up in a military government town. His father was a nuclear chemist at the Handford Nuclear Project. Ken recalls, "It was a dry, not very interesting environment. Probably the one time when the town came to life was Christmas with all the sparkly colors and seasonal tree lights."
As an undergraduate, Ken tried to make his parents happy by taking courses they wanted him to take. "I grew up in a very scientific household!" says Ken. But by the time he was at Ann Arbor in Michigan for graduate studies, Ken was studying the arts. There he got to design the lighting for his first opera, Hansel and Gretel. It was an emergency situation and Ken only had a total of 48 hours to learn and design the opera before it hit the stage. From this humble beginning, Ken has gone on to design a large number of opera and non-opera productions. But for Ken, opera is special because it contains everything: music, staging, singing, scenery, costumes, and lighting.
Ken describes the process of designing the lights for a production, "When I work on an opera, I try to hear what the composer wants me to hear and push it through the lighting technology we have. With success, the art will reemerge on the other side." Last season, Ken had to light operas as varied in locale as exotic Japan (Madama Butterfly) to a frigid, unnamed northern country (Vanessa), with stops in Spain (Carmen), Scotland (Lucia di Lammermoor), and Cyprus (Otello).
The 2012-13 season promises to test further his skills as a lighting designer. First up is the fall production of the Verdi masterpiece, Rigoletto. Ken says, “Rigoletto is a production that we are familiar with from the grand opening of the renovated theater in March 2008. The Act III storm, dramatically so important to the climax of the opera, is a lot of fun to design. It showcases the Opera House’s wonderful lighting system. For this production, we have a gorgeous white marble set that makes it challenging to light the opera’s many night scenes; if I am not careful, the lighting will look too theatrical and not be believable. In addition, whatever I design for the performances in Sarasota has to be replicated for the performance of Rigoletto that takes place at the Philharmonic Center in Naples in mid-November. And at that venue we have very limited time to get the lighting right.”
In addition, Yunker has to consider that for the first time since the inauguration of Sarasota Opera’s fall season of fully produced operas, two different productions will be presented. In the middle of the Rigoletto run will be the two world-premiere performances of Sarasota Youth Opera’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. This opera with music by Daron Aric Hagen and libretto by J.D. McClatchy is based on the famous early twentieth century comic strip by Winsor McCay.
“Having to coordinate these two productions in a repertoire schedule is a massive but rewarding undertaking,” says the lighting design. “For Little Nemo we are using a state-of-the-art digital projection system called SCRIBE (self-contained rapidly integratable background environment). It was developed by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. This style of production will give our audiences a unique visual treat that is perfect for the day and night topsy-turvy world of Little Nemo in Slumberland.”