David Belasco was a pioneer in the field of stage lighting, passionate about creating realistic effects, the most famous of which occurred in his one-act play Madame Butterfly, during which the action slowed to an almost total halt for a 14-minute, lovingly rendered dawn sequence. Puccini saw the play in London in 1900 and rushed backstage afterwards to find Belasco and make an immediate bid for the rights so as to turn it into an opera. Being a man much impressed by technical innovation, Puccini was especially struck by the dawn lighting and went on to incorporate the episode in his opera, as the culmination of Butterfly’s night-long vigil, waiting for the return of the faithless Pinkerton.

The lighting designer Peter Mumford has lit a number of productions of Madama Butterfly in his time and will be tackling the dawn sequence again for Opera North this autumn. He is unusual in a profession in which many people tend to move constantly between opera, dance and drama, alongside forays into film and television. ‘I trained as a stage designer originally,’ he says. ‘I was at the Central School of Art, taught by Ralph Koltai, who was very interested in lighting, which meant that it was covered within the course, but only as a supplementary subject. I don’t think there was any specific training for lighting in those days and, as a separate discipline, a recognised artform, it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It was really just a matter of the chief electrician following instructions from the director saying “I need more light here.”

‘When I left Central I became part of an experimental theatre company called Moving Being. That was in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and we were using film and projection a great deal, and a mixture of dancers and actors. I ended up taking on every aspect of the design, including lighting. After that I moved into the dance world, mostly contemporary work, and very often the pieces were created on empty stages — the lighting was the design. And that’s really how I gained a reputation as a lighting designer more than anything else.’

When you watch a rehearsal with ‘working lights’, in an unchanging lighting state, there is an air of flatness, a lack of detail and subtlety in what you see. Once a lighting designer gets to work that changes dramatically. ‘It is in a sense the last creative act in the process of putting a production together,’ says Mumford. ‘My work is a response to both the content of the performance and also to the surface of the design, which I regard as a canvas on which to work. It’s a painterly sort of discipline. I plan an overall palette for the look of the production and then work at the detail when I’m actually in the theatre, with all the other elements of set and costume design already in place.

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‘It’s also useful to think of lighting in the theatre in a cinematic way, in the sense that it’s got a lot to do with editing. You don’t have a camera as you do in a movie so you can’t actually zoom in or pan around on wide-shot, but lighting can fulfil that role of focusing, directing an audience’s attention to a specific moment or action. Even with a play there’s musicality in the mix as well; it affects the way in which states change and the tempo at which that happens.’

This sort of intuitive approach requires good collaborators. Over the years Mumford has developed close working relationships with a range of people, from the choreographer Siobhan Davies to directors such as Peter Hall, Tim Albery and Anthony Minghella, and the designer Hildegard Bechtler. ‘I like to think that it’s an ever-widening circle of collaborators as it’s always stimulating to work with new people. I recently worked with Ian Rickson for the first time, on The Seagull at the Royal Court, and that was a terrific experience.

‘My ideal way of working is with a designer and director or choreographer who allow me to have my own response to their work. Of course there are times when a director will pick up on a detail and say “I just need to see a bit more of that person’s face” because they’ve spent weeks rehearsing a performance and want to make sure that the detail isn’t lost. On the whole, though, one develops an instinct for knowing what’s needed and anticipating it. And in the best circumstances we’re not compartmentalised; we’ll all discuss whether a scene is working dramatically or whether moving a bit of scenery would help in a particular situation. I’m not confined to discussions about lighting alone.’

There have been of course great technological changes in the field of lighting design. ‘I don’t suppose it’s any bigger in a way than the kind of digital revolution that we’re all going through, but things are certainly very different from when I started out. We used to have huge sliders, about a foot long, that controlled the lights; now, nothing like that is even visible, everything is programmed. Colour and level of intensity can be controlled from inside the lights. Although it’s quite hard to keep up, sometimes it’s simply a matter of improving one’s vocabulary. The principles of colour and content and form haven’t changed but you can do more, and you can do it more quickly.

‘In Chicago and in New York, where I’m about to do Peter Grimes, they have a system called summer teching, where you pretty much light the show before rehearsals even begin. I first did it in Chicago, with A Midsummer Marriage. They give you a week in the summer when the theatre’s closed for business and they build the whole set and put it on stage and you’re expected to work your way through the piece. I had a recording so we played the opera and created a sort of cue structure, a basic skeleton of how it was going to work. Then when it got to the production week at the end of the rehearsal period, that structure was already in place, which saved a lot of time.’

In the vanguard of technical progress in the UK is the Royal Opera House, where they have created a studio in which the entire stage area and the lighting rig have been drawn up three-dimensionally on a computer programme to make a virtual system on which whole productions can be pre-lit. ‘It’s extraordinary,’ says Mumford, ‘and quite alarming to start with, but you soon get the hang of it. The image is big — about six foot by eight foot on the wall. You bring the lighting board in from the theatre, the set has been drawn into the programme so that you can see exactly what’s happening, and you can pre-set all the hanging lights, move them, recolour them and pre-programme the intelligent lights — which at the ROH means 90 per cent of all lights — then you take the lighting board back into the theatre, plug it in and whoosh, away you go.’

Despite all these advances, there will still be the need, every once in a while, for someone to climb a ladder and make a physical adjustment to a piece of kit. A good lighting designer needs to understand both old and new. After all, as Peter Mumford points out, light begins with a match and a candle.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated