Darkness at the opera

Her photography plays with perception and reality

by Danielle Demetriou

Say the word “opera,” and a string of flamboyant images spring to mind, from vivid stage sets to dramatic divas — unless it’s the world of opera as seen through the singular gaze of artist Sophy Rickett.

Known for exploring the tensions between light and darkness, and the narrative and the abstract, Rickett sees the opera in a different manner: a geometric line of shadows rippling across a stage; an industrial bar of fluorescent lights vanishing into the vaults; a blank curtain billowing; the curved sweep of an empty row of seats. These are among the minimalist images captured in the 20-minute film “Auditorium,” created by Rickett in collaboration with composer Ed Hughes. The film is one of a number of works being exhibited till May 16 at Tokyo’s Nichido Contemporary Art (NCA) in Hatchobori for a solo show of the London-based British artist.

Made at the historic Glyndebourne opera house in Britain, “Auditorium” involved the artist shooting more than 70 hours of footage over 10 days and then paring down the results into a film that is as striking as an abstract painting. Using a split screen throughout, the artist focuses on the mechanics behind the magic of theater in order to create her own performance in the empty auditorium of Glyndebourne.

In the film’s sequences, a horizontal rig of lights rises slowly across a blank stage casting shadows in staggered bars across an empty theater; in another, a vertical pulley system of cords high in the vaults captures the light, resembling sheets of rain.

Set against a dramatic orchestral soundtrack, complete with the muffled voices of production staff, every item used in the film relates to the functionality of the theater rather than an actual performance — from the green cleaning lights to the strip of fluorescent “workers” lights.

Flashing vivid blue eyes and dressed in a boho-chic star-print dress and striped yellow scarf, Rickett is passionate about her work as she explains the concepts behind it on the eve of the exhibition opening.

“We want to create a beautiful illusion and then reveal the mechanics behind the creation of that illusion,” she says. “To set it up and then puncture it. We wanted to break down the boundaries between these two sides and make the space one.

“I like to call the auditorium the ‘sublime machine.’ “

A series of monochrome photographs of Glyndebourne accompany the film and capture other hidden aspects of opera performances, such as the scrawled chalk markings on the floor for La Traviata stage directions.

Describing the appeal of life outside the spotlight, Rickett — whose husband is renowned theater-set designer Robert Innes Hopkins — says that the “backstage tells a parallel story. I’m always completely thrilled by these places. All these people in black, creeping around, moving props, reading books, going out for a cigarette. All in whispers. Everything is beautifully heightened.

“It has its own choreography. What happens backstage is just as choreographed as what is seen at the front. And the darkness of backstage is definitely part of the attraction for me.”

Darkness has long been a theme in the work of the thirtysomething mother of two, whose previous photographic works have featured landscapes as “studios,” creating minimalist outdoor shots using theater lights.

Also on show at NCA is her latest work “Untitled Nature,” which reflects a further exploration of light and landscapes. The eight-print series consists of four pairs of photographs, each with an ethereal, monochrome bird on the left, contrasted with a vibrantly lit tree on the right.

“Photography is complicit with the imagination,” says Rickett, discussing the new works. “These images are closer to how we imagine the birds and trees to be before you get there than how they really are. I use photography to mediate between nature and our expectations and our imagination.”

From a ghostlike owl to the moving shadows within an empty opera-house auditorium, the subject matter may be disparate. But the artists attempt to tap into the imagined as opposed to the real is a theme the resonates throughout her work.

“It is all about revealing illusions,” explains Rickett. “Maintaining a balance with magic and fantasy. It is not what you see; it is how you see it.”

“Sophy Rickett: Auditorium and Recent Photo Works” is at Nichido Contemporary Art (Da Vinci Kyobashi B1, 4-3-3 Hatchobori, Chuo-ku) till May 16; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Mon. and Sun.). For more information, call (03) 3555-2140 or visit