Gil Wechsler, an Illuminating Fixture on the Met Opera, Dies at 79

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Gil Wechsler, an Illuminating Fixture at the Met Opera, Dies at 79

Gil Wechsler, who with innovative lighting designs helped bring more than 100 productions to life at the Metropolitan Opera, translated the visions of some of the opera’s most famous directors and at the same time contributed to a more modern look for the productions at the Met, died on September 9th July at a memorial care facility in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He was 79 years old.

His husband, artist Douglas Sardo, said the cause was complications from dementia.

Mr. Wechsler was the first resident lighting designer at the Met. In 1977 he ignited his opening show and over the next 20 years had 112 Met productions, 74 of them new, the days dawn, rain and the cities burn.

His career also took him to London, Paris and other international opera and ballet centers. Wherever he was designing, he knew that often the audience didn’t notice his contributions to a production – which was usually the point.

“If the lighting is good, you really shouldn’t notice it often,” he told Opera News in 1987. “In some operas, such as ‘Die Walküre’, however, the lighting becomes a show. It should look natural – it shouldn’t be jarring, but you should be touched by it. “

Fabrizio Melano was one of the many directors who appreciated Mr. Wechsler’s skills, although, as he noted, the audience often did not.

“They take the lighting for granted and it’s something intangible,” Melano said in a telephone interview. “You can see sets, you can see people moving, but lighting is an atmosphere. But sometimes the atmosphere is the most important thing because so much depends on it. And he was a master of the atmosphere. “

One of many examples of Mr. Wechsler’s handicrafts was seen at the Met in Mr. Melano’s production of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”, on which they worked together in 1977.

“The illusion of moonlight falling through the trees is created by a patterned slide in front of one of the lamps,” the New York Times explained in 1978 in an article about Mr. Wechsler and how he created its effects. “From the audience’s point of view, the set looks strikingly like a three-dimensional forest.”

Joseph Volpe, a former general manager of the Met, said Mr. Wechsler was an important part of the efforts of John Dexter, the Met’s director of production from 1975 to 1981, to modernize the look and feel of the company’s productions. Up until now, the lighting was usually handled by the chief electrician and the approach was to simply illuminate the entire stage. Mr. Wechsler brought nuances and visual effects into play, including using light to highlight a soloist and fading the chorus into the shadows.

“The company had a nickname for Gil: Prince of Darkness,” said Volpe in a telephone interview, “because Gil has of course understood that it is important not to flood the whole stage with light.”

Gilbert Dale Wechsler was born in Brooklyn on February 5, 1942. His father Arnold was a stockbroker and his mother Miriam (Steinberg) Wechsler volunteered at the Brooklyn Museum.

His parents often sent him to summer camp in New Jersey growing up, Mr. Sardo said in a telephone interview, and it was while working on camp productions that young Gil first discovered his fascination for the theater.

He graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn and studied for three years at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY before realizing that a career in business or finance was not in his future. In 1964 he earned a theater degree from New York University and in 1967 a Masters of Fine Arts from Yale.

After graduation he found a job as assistant to the well-known stage and lighting designer Jo Mielziner, and in 1968 he received his first Broadway loan as a lighting designer for the play “Staircase” by Charles Dyer. In 1972 he received another Broadway merit for Georges Feydeau’s “There’s One in Every Marriage”. Prior to joining the Met, he also designed for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the Harkness Ballet, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and other leading regional theaters and festivals.

At the Met, Mr. Wechsler worked with Otto Schenk, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, David Hockney and many other leading directors and designers. The lighting for the Met is a particular challenge, as the shows – unlike, for example, on Broadway – change weekly or even daily. One of Mr. Wechsler’s accomplishments, Mr. Sardo said, was keeping accurate records of the lighting schemes for each production so that one show could be swapped for another more efficiently.

“Before Gil was involved, there were no reference manuals on how to do this,” Sardo said. “Somebody somehow remembered what the lighting should be like.”

In 1979, according to Mr. Volpe, Mr. Wechsler smoothed out the changeover by installing the Met’s first computer-controlled light panel.

His work on a production began long before the premiere or even the first rehearsal; for an opera he studied the score of an opera and developed his own ideas of what each scene should look like.

“The light stimuli are always a function of the music,” he told the Times, “and in that sense the score is the Bible. The music suggests a sunrise or maybe a gloomy day as well as a sense of continuity from scene to scene. When I follow the score, certain images automatically come to mind. “

But it wasn’t necessarily the same images that occurred to the director or the set designer; Once everyone got their heads together, the compromises began. In an interview with Opera News, he recalled a certain scene in “Turandot” that he and director Franco Zeffirelli had conceived very differently.

“Puccini’s score doesn’t show when the scene is taking place,” he explained, “except that there are lanterns around the stage. This hint meant ‘night’ for me, but Franco sees it differently. ”- He wanted the scene to be staged in daylight.

Mr. Wechsler also found compromises with the stage and costume designers as well as with the actors. For example, there was the subject of fire.

“Fire is difficult because of course you can’t have a full stage fire, even though some operas call for it,” he told the Times. “We make fire with smoke, steam and projections. The more smoke and steam we can use, the better it will look. Unfortunately, the more smoke we use, the less happy the singers are. “

The Prince of Darkness didn’t just use shadows to hide the chorus; He used it on some of the Met’s older productions to hide the wear and tear on the sets. That could be difficult, however.

“If the score calls for a bright, sunny day, we can’t make it too bright or you can see where the paint is peeling,” he said. “And we can’t make it so dark that it doesn’t look like day anymore.”

Mr. Wechsler, who lived in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, directed his last Met production in 1996, Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”. He and Mr. Sardo, whose relationship began in 1980, married in 2017. Mr. Sardo, Mr. Wechsler leaves behind a brother, Norman.

Mr. Wechsler’s lighting designs were still used by the Met for a number of productions before the performances were suspended in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.