Leigh takes Wagner into the 21st century

December 13, 2023 by Henry Benjamin
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Two years after the wall dividing West and East Germany was destroyed, 21-year-old Leigh Haas farewelled her family in her native Glasgow to live in the burgeoning creative city of Berlin.

Photo: Wallis Media

The architectural graduate found in her new home, a pathway to a future that would make her a worldwide leader in creating not buildings but visual digital art.

Leigh is now holidaying in Byron Bay with her family, having wowed audiences in Brisbane amazed by her digital effects enhancing Wagner’s Ring Cycle produced by Opera Australia. The Sydney Opera House can not accommodate the 83 musicians the Cycle demands.

And what did the critics think of the updated and the first digital performance of the Wagner masterpiece?

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s  Peter McCallum wrote: “Recent digital productions have sometimes overplayed technical wizardry to the point of distraction, like someone playing with a new computer program. For me (though perhaps not for the solitary boo-er at the final curtain), this was avoided by letting the digital screens fall silent at times and elsewhere, synchronising image and dramatic action.

In the second evening, Die Walkure, the arrival of the Valkyries aboard a metallic-feathered “phoenix jet” in a meretricious burst of crimson indulgence prompted cheers from younger audience members and disapproval from captious Wagnerians.

In the final scene of the last opera (on the fourth evening), Gotterdammerung exploded in stage wonder and immersive video, realising Wagner’s impractical aspirational stage directions with greater fidelity than he probably imagined was possible.”

Limelight’s Jansson J. Antmann has praised the production and wants it to be repeated. Having seen Das Rheingold, he wrote: “Despite such ominous murmurings,  director Chen Shi-Zheng and his team fashion a romantic scene that has the audience cheering well after the curtain comes down on the first act.

Buds burst into bloom on the giant bonsai, yellow petals rain down on the stage, while others appear on the digital screens. Later, they turn to snow.

In anyone else’s hands, it could be kitsch, but Chen Shi-Zheng and Digital Content Designer Leigh Sachwitz know how to walk that fine line. This is art, elevated further by sublime voices.”

Olivia Stewart wrote in The Guardian that the Ring Cycle had not been produced in Brisbane since its completion 147 years ago. She wrote: “It’s immersive from the start, with digital displays spanning the breadth and height of the stage. Generated by the content designer Leigh Sachwitz and flora&faunavisions, images of nature – including the sun, moon, eclipses and the elemental – place the action in a world we all share, and add a layer of existential contemplation; in the prologue, Das Rheingold, we are submerged in a glorious green wall of water, while dancing northern lights and nebulae draw us into the gods’ celestial realm.”

Married and now Leigh Sachwitz, she has visited the land down under before, having been commissioned by Australia Opera to weave her magic in 2016 for the Opera on the Harbour production of Turandot.

So how did Leigh Sachwitz become a world leader in producing amazing effects married to opera?

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A chance meeting with a director in London culminated in Leigh’s first opera, Pompeo.

Back in 1993, opera didn’t rate highly in Leigh’s life plan.

So what did?

Leigh Sachwitz

She answered: “Raving…and more raving. I just wanted to get into the art scene. The Wall had fallen two years before, so there was a huge amount of space and a huge amount of potential. Anywhere in the world where there is a historical political moment causing things to crumble, they end up being places where creativity can thrive.

Berlin was already renowned for its underground crazy 1920s cabaret style and wildness. Then, in the 80s, David Bowie appeared on the scene, and the advent of electronic music.”

So the low-cost space, some of it no-cost, new music, an exciting art scene, impromptu parties and a need to create the mood where Berlin’s younger generation can enjoy to the max in the exciting newly united city. Enter Leigh Haas.

She explains: “We started working with old technology from Russian flea markets. I was getting into lights and pictures and images.  Apple started producing machines for artists to work on, and Adobe launched Photoshop and then there was the beginning of the Internet. I didn’t have a mobile phone. I used Jaz storage discs at that time, which could only hold 100Mb, which, at that time, was exciting.”

Leigh Haas had started to make a name for herself, producing her own festivals and her own parties.

The Berlin music scene grew from strength to strength and Leigh found herself in demand with her ability to use light and electronics to create a much in-demand atmosphere.

The penny dropped. Leigh thought: “I might be able to make a living out of this and I just moved on to the next step. And in the end, I built a company out of it. So I always say I was in the right place at the right time, and I was the right age to be there. And it was just a moment of fate, unplanned destiny.”

Photo: Wallis Media

Organically. This is a word Leigh uses to describe the growth of her company. She said: “With every project that came, I became more professional, and the company became bigger and more stable. I never had a business plan and never had a strategy.”

She describes the early days of the company. “I was doing live shows for clubs and I was working as a VJ…a visual jockey working with DJs. I was mixing live visuals during musical performances and I did a few projects with a live art performance groups.  Those were the first projects for  which I went on tour, eventually to the USA.”

The stage was set. Lighting. Digitalising. Theatre. Live performances. Time to go to the opera.

Leigh says many operagoers prefer the traditional staging.

Her view: “There’s always going to be people who want to stay old school and who don’t see the potential. And if you can’t do it well, and if you’re not convincing, then I think it’s fair enough.

This Ring Cycle is completely driven by digital content. Without the digital content, there isn’t a ring cycle. Not this one. It’s very, very dominant. And it’s completely driving the story as well.

I’m sure there will be many people travelling because that’s what they do for the Ring cycle. There are a whole bunch of Wagner freaks who have seen so many Ring Cycles. And I’m sure people will think it’s awful because they want to see traditional sets. I think they should maybe go and see a different Ring Cycle. But for anybody who wants to be convinced that you can merge different worlds, like the classical world with the world of digital technology, done in a very emotional and poetic way that doesn’t distract from the music and which dances with the orchestra.

Photo: Wallis Media

It’s very, very well produced, well thought about, and very emotional. A lot of people have seen it now and I am receiving a lot of positive feedback from people, singers for example, and they say that they really didn’t know what to expect but that they have been so emotionally moved by the work. There will be people who are very sceptical and who eventually get converted to believing that we can bring these worlds together.

The composer was so radical. Wagner said let’s put the orchestra in the pit because who wants to look at them. He said let’s bring the action to the front of the theatre. There are some sounds in the opera that are completely unconventional, and he had to invent a musical instrument. So, if there’s any piece in the opera world that could be taken with a modern twist, I think it’s this one. So I believe it’s a good fit to do something like this.”

Wagner has never been a go-to composer for Jewish music lovers. How did this impact on Leigh?

When I was asked to do it, there was an extra element of thinking about it properly before saying yes because of my being Jewish and because of his renowned anti-Semitism. But I’m an artist, and I can separate those things. I felt it was possible to separate those things out musically. It’s not like I’m a classical music lover, but I’ve always completely respected Wagner’s music. I hadn’t even listened to the ring cycle when asked to do it. I was completely drawn into it by the music, the beauty of the story, and the way that the rhythms were written. So, there’s nothing political in this version of the ring. It takes place in outer space.

There’s nothing about the real world at all in the costumes in the digital output. I feel like you can put it in another place, and it doesn’t really matter to me what his values were or what his personal thoughts were or his political ideas back at that time.

So that’s my kind of attitude towards it. So I would say to Jewish opera lovers that it’s okay to love it for being a piece of art and wonderful music, and it’s OK to enjoy it.

It’s not a crime to enjoy Wagner’s music just because he was anti-semitic. I think it’s okay to drive a German car. That doesn’t mean that you support BMW or Mercedes Benz. I’m a Jewish woman living in Berlin. What about Volkswagen and Hugo Boss?

You must know your take on it and how you feel about it. And everyone is free to do what to do what they want, you know.”

The Ring Cycle has met with critical acclaim.

And operagoers will wait on bated breath to see what Leigh will produce in her digital world.

Leigh’s work is totally transportable and is the intellectual property of Opera Australia, which hopes to license it overseas.


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