Set and projection designer Erhard Rom at the Royal Swedish Opera, 2023. (courtesy of the artist)

Ahead of The Atlanta Opera’s “Die Walküre,” set and projection designer Erhard Rom discusses his craft, evolving technologies

Mark Gresham | 22 APR 2024

This Saturday is opening night of The Atlanta Opera’s new production of Die Walküre, their second epic installment in Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The Ring is a work of extraordinary scale. The four operas of the cycle run a total of about 15 hours over four nights, and producing any one of them is a massive undertaking for any opera company.

One of the most significant elements in the herculean task of mounting any part of The Ring is set design.

In the case of the Atlanta Opera’s Ring, the set design and projections for Die Walküre have been entrusted to Erhard Rom, who also designed last season’s Das Rheingold and has been a long-time collaborator with the company’s general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun in previous highly-successful opera productions such as La bohème, Rigoletto, and Salome.

EarRelevant publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently spoke with Erhard Rom about set design, and the advances in technology—particularly scenic projection—that have made The Atlanta Opera’s particular vision for Die Walküre and the rest of Ring cycle even possible. The extensive Q&A below (long enough to be posted here in two linked pages/parts) is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.

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Mark Gresham: During the last ten years, you did some of the earliest Atlanta Opera productions that involve projections, which is a major recent factor in the advancement of stage design with technology, and the La bohème that played in January of this year was a revival of one of those productions that the company presented almost a decade ago, but it’s an opera on which you began collaborating with Tomer Zvulun even before he became general & artistic director for The Atlanta Opera. Tell us about how set design technology, particularly the use of projection, has evolved over that decade, or even before that, up to your involvement with several of this season’s productions, including the design of the much-anticipated upcoming production of Die Walküre.

Erhard Rom: The La bohème design has an interesting history in that, in some ways, it illustrates how projections have come into my life. That design started off without any projections because the Opera Theater of Saint Louis performs on a thrust stage, so it was quite minimal.

Later, Tomer Zvulun and I worked together to do a production at Cleveland Opera, and we talked about doing it on a proscenium stage and expanding it a bit. So, some of what I actually did was enlarge photographs by famous photographers. There’s Charles Marville, who took pictures of Paris before the restorations in the middle of the 19th century. So you have all these great photographs of the empty streets with all the buildings. And then there’s the famous Brassai photographs. We incorporated that at first in Cleveland with the photo enlargements—large prints—which is something I still do.

But then we moved to do it in Seattle in 2013, and at that point, I said, “Why don’t we add projection? And so that’s how that production grew to have projections.

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Our La bohème production isn’t exactly elaborate. It has front and rear projections that are part of the design, but not in the same way as something like Das Rheingold, where it is ongoing; how we’re doing Die Walküre and the rest of The Ring.

Projections are not a new idea in terms of technology; it’s more about what you can do with them. In the sixties and seventies, there were people using projections and the technology was pretty problematic. And, for me, when I moved into being a scenic designer in the nineties, it was still problematic. So when I started designing professionally, I didn’t go near projections even though I thought they had exciting potential for expressing things. It used to be that you’d have to do things like project giant glass slides. It just sounded like a nightmare. And if it wasn’t quite what you wanted, too bad, it’s done. The glass slide is there; that’s all you get. It just seemed like a lot of technical stuff that would be difficult to deal with. So I didn’t go near it.

Then, around mid-2000 I started to work with projections in a very crude way. Ir was almost like PowerPoint.

So, in those early years, it was interesting because all of a sudden, there was digital technology, PhotoShop, and various programs that you could use to do things you previously couldn’t. Now there are things like Cinema 4D (3D computer graphics software), but I certainly was using a lot of PhotoShop at the time. There were people doing similar things before PhotoShop existed and it was revolutionary, but all of a sudden, everybody could cut and paste and manipulate imagery with PhotoShop. The technology got very sophisticated but also much easier to deal with. That it made it possible for people to do things that you couldn’t do before.

Tomer Zvulun (left) and Erhard Rom (right) in the Dallas Opera's scene shop collaborating on a 2022 production of "Rigoletto" that came to The Atlanta Opera early this season. (courtesy of Erhard Rom)

Tomer Zvulun (left) and Erhard Rom (right) in the Dallas Opera’s scene shop collaborating on a 2022 production of “Rigoletto” that came to The Atlanta Opera early this season. (courtesy of Erhard Rom)

MG: I recall being in a musical production as a teenager back in the mid-1970s, where we used a bank of six Kodak Carousel slide projectors with cross-faders. As rudimentary as that was, at least from today’s perspective, it seemed to work okay for what it achieved: a constant shift of background images. But some people thought that even if you could paint a drop, you could get a big slide projector, project it instead, and save a lot of money.

ER: In the early years, that was always sort of a thing that companies would say, and then it would become clear to them that in fact, it wasn’t cheaper because of all of the money and time that went into getting the projectors. Then they weren’t bright enough. You couldn’t actually make a projectede sky backdrop that was bright enough to compete with stage lighting.

All these things have been evolving for so long. And so that’s the part I added into my design world because I’ve always wanted to, and all of a sudden, it was possible. But again, La bohème started without them at all. I moved gradually into it, and it became more and more significant.

The significance of projections is that they can express things you can’t with just scenery alone. And I do view them as completely related. I’ve done many shows where the projection designer is a separate person, so I don’t always do them both, but when I do them both together, I imagine them as one thing.

There’s got to be a reason why you’re using projections that make sense. For example, if it’s just projected backdrops, there must be some animation that you can do with it that you couldn’t possibly do with a painted drop, so you’re using it for that purpose. Much more importantly to me, is a dramaturgical basis for it.


What projection does, which is very exciting, is that it gets into the psychology of the characters, it gets into the mind of the characters. Opera primarily has the music as a driving force. The most powerful storyteller in opera is the music. I feel projections and lighting work with music and are much more like music than anything else in the visual arts. It is a great thrill to have not only the scenic design part, which is the architectural space, which I do think overlaps with music as well, but then there’s this other layer of projection that is going inside the emotions of the characters, the psychology of the characters, which, and you’re joining with the music when you do that.

MG: You wind up working with the stage of the mind.

ER: Yeah, exactly. With La bohème, we took the original Henri Murger story from the 19th century, in which the bohemian life was set in the 1830s, and we moved it to the 1890s. This is not a radical shift by any stretch, but it allows the world of photography to become part of the language.

So, in some ways, it’s literally about photography. So what you see are giant photo enlargements. However, at first they were painted, which was fascinating to me when I had some of these done originally. We could take the photographs that I edited and then have the scenic artist paint them and make them look as though they’re actually real large prints.

Production photo from The Atlanta Opera's staging of Puccini's "La bohème." (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

A scene from The Atlanta Opera’s January 2024 production of Puccini’s “La bohème” showing part Erhard Rom’s set design with projected background. (credit: Raftermen / courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

As I said, I started doing this using photographs in design as photo enlargements, literally giant prints on canvas. The reason is that I found there is an artificiality of things on stage that sometimes bothered me. I really love seeing a photograph or a projection that, ironically, is in a way less real than a physically built thing but it makes you think of something real when you see a photograph of a tree that has more magic than plastic foliage, you know.

With projections, it was more simplified initially because I took steps into it and then went all the way as we did with Salome, where it is truly embracing. The final scene where she’s holding this head can be quite grotesque, but the music is just phenomenal, and this allowed us to project what she’s feeling and thinking rather than just looking at a head. It was an opportunity to express layers of poetry that you couldn’t necessarily do otherwise.

There’s always, of course, a danger of upstaging, and you have to be careful to make sure you balance that. Ultimately, it’s the music, the text, and what the characters are feeling and thinking that the audience needs to be experiencing, not thinking about your technology.

MG: Right. So it’s not, “Oh, look: technology.” What advances in set design technology have you seen in the period between these two productions, and how has that impacted your approach to this production?

ER: That’s a great question because there have been significant changes. First of all, when I started doing this, I was tip-toeing in, so I always have the attitude, “Well, how much of the show is telling things scenically? How much of that is scenic design, and how much will it be projection?”

I often thought it should be no more than about 40% projection and 60% scenic for me to do both, but over the years, it’s gotten to the point where it became 50/50. I think Salome was 50/50. I think Das Rhinegold was almost more projection and then scenery. So that’s a change that I’ve personally experienced artistically.

But I’ve also seen huge advances in technology like the LED wall that we got for Das Rheingold. The thing that’s amazing is that it used to be, and certainly what I did with La boheme, that there’s a rear projection screen and projectors were lined up behind that and projecting onto that from the rear. That was how you projected backgrounds in, in the past. And that is still done all the time by many opera companies.

In The Atlanta Opera's 2023 production of "Das Rheingold," Erhard Rom's set design depicts the fortress Valhalla as a sleekly modern skyscraper complex, using a giant LED wall. (credit: Ken Howard)

In The Atlanta Opera’s 2023 production of “Das Rheingold,” Erhard Rom’s set design depicts the fortress Valhalla as a sleekly modern skyscraper complex, using a giant LED wall. (credit: Ken Howard)

It was always a struggle because it depended on the quality of that image and the intensity of the image. The potential intensity was largely related to the quality of the equipment, how good and recent that equipment is that you’re using, and what it was capable of doing. There were times when I’ve had disappointing rear projections where it was literally not bright enough. You end up just feeling like you have to change the content because it’s not really working, where the lighting designer has to turn down all the light.

There was a lot of struggle with that in the past that was mostly solved because the companies I was working for were able to purchase and rent very good equipment. I did a lot of San Francisco Opera with this kind of technology and they had fantastic projectors to where you really got strong bright images on the rear projection screen; in Seattle Opera and, so forth, but there were places where it was not quite what it needed to be. So that’s one thing that changed.

Then when the LED wall came around and we actually decided to make that part of this Ring, it opened up a lot of potential. The lighting designer can’t possibly compete with the amount of intensity you can produce on the LED wall. You really have a different technology there. It also is shockingly vivid. We did a silhouette of a giant crane arriving in Das Rheingold that you’d swear that there was actually something rolling around back there.

With LED walls, it starts to make me slightly nervous, even though eventually it will be nothing but these LED walls because you can set them up in different configurations. They don’t have to be just one big wall; they could be different angles, and you can rotate them. And so you can project content, and people have already been doing this kind of work where it really is almost like a virtual set.


MG: How has this changed your approach over the last decade, especially with productions that may not necessarily require a lot of the special projection technology?

ER: I should just say not everybody is in love with the LED wall—and I’m talking about projection designers. Some feel concerned about it because the irony is that while achieving that level of brightness with rear projection is impossible, the tricky part is getting them to go dim. Sometimes you fight with that.

But over time, that’s going to be solved completely. You could put a rear projection screen in front of the LED wall to make it less harsh. It would be good to experiment with that. But it allows you to believe, okay, when I want something on the rear projection image to be strong, I won’t have any problem with it. You can count on projecting something truly vivid.

Nothing about front projection has changed. I guess the difference between, say, La bohème and what I’m going to be doing with all these Ring cycle sets is that in The Ring, there are literally three projection surfaces. In La bohème, there are only two, and I don’t think we used the two simultaneously almost ever. We had two places we could project: on the front screen and on the rear.

In The Ring, there’s a screen curtain that you can project onto, which is in the middle of the stage. Then there’s also the LED wall in the back for rear projection, as it were. And then there’s the front screen. We layered all three of those at times in Das Rheingold, opening up huge potential for layers of ideas.

That’s the biggest difference in terms of technology, but I still think the artistic differences are more significant because La Bohème is more straightforward: it provides backdrops and collages in the front. Whereas with Salome, you’re really going inside the characters’ minds and various themes of the piece. And in The Ring we do that. The most important part about all of this is that technology can advance all of it, but it doesn’t change the fact that what you do with it is what will be important.

Once the initial shock of new technology wears off, you have to do something interesting. Like the first time that people sat in a movie theater [to see L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a silent 1895 short film by the Lumière brothers] and the train comes towards the screen, the audience jumped out of their seats in terror because they felt like the train was going to hit them.

Well, you can’t do that today in a movie theater. You can’t make the audience believe that train’s coming up and it’s going to hit them, but they really felt that at the time.

And the same thing is true with projection technology in the theater. You have to be sure that what you do with it will matter, not just the fact that you can do it. There must always be a reason to use this imagery that comes out of the storytelling, the dramaturgy, and what you want to express. The critical part of the whole discussion is, “Why are we using this? What do we want it to express?” Then as technology evolves, it allows you to express those things more and more effectively. That’s really what I see is changing: our toolbox is getting bigger.

Interview continues in PART 2