What do Buxton’s transition diagrams and La Bohème have in common?

November 12, 2011  |  Uncategorized

They’re not dominated by the States!

Thanks to Marty’s suggestion in class, my project 4 team decided to attend tonight’s showing of La Bohème.  This was my first time at an opera, and I was absolutely blown away by  the experience.  The cast expressed genuine emotions to a beautiful soundtrack.  But like Marty foreshadowed in class: the set was magical.

This week Chen and I revisited Bill Buxton’s lecture on Sketching and Experience Design.  I am a sucker for bad jokes, and Buxton used one that stuck for me: “Q: What do Canada and transitions have in common?/ A: They are both dominated by the States.”  For a good portion of the lecture, Buxton harps on the fundamental importance of transitions in design.  He goes as far as to say “experience happens in the transitions”.  The gravity of this lesson struck me when I saw an iPad adjust its brightness.  I watched the user of the iPad interact with the device and then left it alone for a couple minutes.  In an beautiful way, the fully-backlit screen slowly dims like a candle being blown out in the wind.  But then the moment the user touches the tablet again, the display springs back to life like a fresh match striking its matchbox.

I witnessed the importance of transitions again in La Bohème.  The opera begins outside of a house on a stunningly realistic snowy evening.  As they walk inside, the entire stage rotates like a merry-go-round along with their movement.  When inside the house, a glowing light starts to emanate from the frosted windows of the set.  The light keeps getting brighter and brighter, until you see a woman holding a candle on the other side of the window.  This method is how the main actress is introduced (transitioned into the play).  Before seeing the candle, I thought the inside set was going to be an ordinary, static setup.  But the candle added so much depth to the scene.  The only word that I can describe my feeling of the set is interactive.  The play uses a similar method at the end of act II.  There is a large party in town and you hear the faint sound of drummers.  As the party continues, the noise of a band gets a little lounder and louder some more.  Then a marching band appears gaining the attention of all of the characters in the opera and the audience.  This band then walks off the stage and the curtain drops.  Seconds later, the band marches into the auditorium and out of the room.  During Act III, a very beautiful stage transition happened.  Before the transition the stage is a snowy scene with a gate guarding a courtyard.  The stage rotates 180 degrees to a s (yet again) snowy scene of the courtyard. But halfway into the turn, you see a cutaway of a house where people are eating and drinking in a cozy room.  For those few seconds where I watched the joy in the shelter, I felt warm and happy.  But the stage’s arrival at the frozen courtyard felt even colder because of that brief warmth.

After the opera ended, I have started to wonder what I have been missing out on.  My previous experience with the performing arts have been static scenes with curtain drops in between.  But IU’s production of La Bohème shows that there is another way.  With the rotating stage and other show elements, the entire opera feels like one flowing story.  And it makes me wonder how crazy the storyboards were to achieve such an enormous feat.

All in all, I am exceptionally glad that Marty challenged us to attend the play.  And the transitions of  La Bohème made the opera experience for me.