Haydn’s The Seasons – An Alternative Approach

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The production of The Seasons in October 2022 was the culmination of a fruitful multi-year collaboration between the Barbican, AAM and Nina Dunn Studio, using the intricately sculpted wooden walls around the Barbican stage as a canvas for huge immersive projections. Emma Gait, Programming & Planning Manager at the Barbican Centre, takes us behind the scenes.

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The creative process for these designs starts with what I can only describe as a listening party, down in Nina’s studio in Brighton. Picture the scene: art director Nina, lead animator Matt Brown and producer Laura Salmi, AAM’s Laurence Cummings and John McMunn, and me – all crammed into an upstairs room over a quirky old shop, sea air blowing in through the open window and Haydn’s immortal strains blasting back out into the street.

Over the course of a six-hour day we worked our way through every note of The Seasons, hitting pause to discuss how the aria we’d just listened to fitted into the dramatic arc or what visual detail could heighten the impact of a particular phrase, and hunting for reference images (I recall trawling the internet for the perfect harvest field under storm clouds). We gradually settled on the idea that the projections should form a vast “digital oil painting”: an impressionistic rural landscape, created from scratch, with different tableaux that we could pan between as if turning on the spot to see new views. The light would change almost imperceptibly from dawn to dusk, storms would blow up and disperse, and the year would slowly turn through the seasons, all mirroring Haydn’s score.

After that initial studio session, Nina, Matt and Laura prepared a written treatment describing the key features of the visuals for each musical number, with a mood board of reference images for each scene – colour palettes, details of plants and flowers, landscape sketches. Then the creation of the actual images for our production began, starting with just four “key style frames”: the opening woodland, our spring meadow, summer’s shady grove and an autumnal orchard. The design team worked outward from these, first creating the rest of the landscape tableaux, then mapping out how light and colour would change in each image to reflect the passing days and seasons.

About six weeks before the performance the designers revealed the full storyboards: about 120 still images, covering every scene and transition in the show. In half a dozen clicks, Matt showed us how autumn’s harvest fields would blur, lose colour and become the icy mists of winter. The beautiful spring sunrise over a ploughed field, briefly drenched by a passing shower, was divided into 11 subtly different stages, later to be linked into a seamless evolution. Nina’s team are wonderful collaborators, inviting our comments at every stage of the process, so by the time we reached the storyboard phase we had little to say beyond “we love it”!

During September the designers animated the entire show – every fluctuation of light, shade, colour and movement through the landscape programmed to run smoothly on cue, ready for an intense 48 hours of setup and technical rehearsal in the Barbican Hall itself. We needed three projectors to cover such a huge surface, each one precisely focused in situ using a guide image of gridlines, arcs and mysterious coloured blobs created from a scan of the walls. This painstaking work ensured that the joins between the images thrown by each projector were completely invisible, and every detail aligned with the correct facet of the wooden moulding. As Laurence (Music Director, Laurence Cummings) rehearsed the musicians, the designers could fine-tune their pacing, each cue called by a stage manager following the score so that projections and music worked in perfect harmony.

With final tweaks by Nina’s team and Barbican lighting designer Max Thompson continuing right up until doors opened, the performance itself was the first time any of us saw the projections in their final glorious form. Nerves aside, that made it all the more magical. Even those of us who’d seen the project at every stage since its inception experienced something fresh and new together with the rest of the audience: a great, universal story told through music and through light itself.

Emma Gait

Programming & Planning Manager, Barbican Centre

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Photos: Mark Allan / AAM

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