Theater is simple: you sit in the dark and listen to the light.
Under the African sky, whose beauty is notoriously addictive and affects fate, the little Guido Levi, an Italian from Léopoldville where he was born in 1952, had a Congolese caregiver named Ambroise. The boy went to school by bicycle with Daisy, the little monkey, perched on the handlebars. Ambroise pedaled a little behind, and for Guido he was almost a second father: the first being an engineer who worked hard in an Italian factory also based in the Congo and had founded a school for the village boys; an engineer who even took part in the history of Nutella.
Guido used to say that Ambroise, with whom he spoke in French, taught him how to defend himself from nature without killing it. Once, on the way to school, the little monkey began to scream bloody murder; she was shrieking like a maniac, really acting bananas. Ambroise saw the reason for the madness and shouted "Stop!" because there was a snake in their path, then he grabbed a stone, took the snake by the tail and as soon as it turned, its jaws wide open, he stuck the stone in its mouth and finally swung it and launched it away. The snake was alive, but out of the way. Ambroise and Guido walked along the Congo River passing over the crocodiles as if they were stepping stones, since they are harmless when sleeping. Of course it needs to be understood whether they are really asleep and Ambroise, unlike many of us, understood it.
The indelible memory of colors and light.
Guido Levi has always said that the job he has done, he did only and exclusively thanks to Africa. The job is that of the “lighting designer”, but the definition seemed ugly to him and he always proclaimed himself Lucifer.
Guido "Lucifer" Levi has defeated darkness in the most important theaters in the world, illuminating both opera and traditional theater. Conductors and non plus ultra directors were caressed by the beneficial flash of that special bearer of light with a mustache who, however, loved to start from the dark, custodian of every glimmer. He would reach the console or the stage and, a little jokingly, a little seriously, he would announce: "Let's make darkness". Because it is from darkness that light stems and because he teased the others: "When is it that we get dark in this show?"
He always lived lightly; he defused. He got angry, nevertheless. It was Claudio Abbado who offered him one of the great joys of professional life asking him for the "the light of darkness". Don Giovanni, Ferrara. At some point in the opera Abbado wanted the dark on stage, the mystery. There would have been a reflection of the orchestra's light, it was pointed out. But Abbado, in search of absolute, replied that then the orchestra would play in the dark.
The director is also responsible for Guido's only curtain call on stage for the applause at the end of opening night. Usually he did not go out: he claimed that if he went out on stage then the whole team of technicians ought to do it as well. Shyness played a part, and secluding himself had become a habit. On opening night, he would be in the theater, but not in the auditorium. Never watched the show: he wandered around in the foyer, at the cafeteria, because he wanted the work to become the property of the group. Their business. Every now and then he peered. He was there, nervously.
The Magic Flute, Edinburgh. Abbado called him during the applause, then went to get him backstage because he didn't want to go out on stage. He even stumbled, clumsy Lucifer.
The only thing I have to say is that to make theater lighting you need to recover the rhythms of nature and the light inside nature. Until you do this you won’t understand what it means to make light.
Lucifer arrived early, if the call was at 9, at 8 he was already in front of the theater, sometimes opening it with the custodian. To some it seemed an excess of zeal, to others the attitude of a boss. In reality, it was essential for him to enter in the darkness and total silence because he geared up while waiting for the technicians. Like all smart people, he had doubts. The phases followed one another: excitement, interest, "Oh my God, one has to do a miracle". Furious fights with the artistic and technical management to have more hours so that the technicians, whom he called workers to emphasize their rights, could take turns. One of the sorrows of the last few years is that today there is so little time for every production and everything must be speeded up.
Lucifer had grown up in Africa, he never really became a European and the sense of time, the letting go, were African: a sunset takes its time, you can't speed it up.
He presented himself "naked" before a new assignment, without studying opera librettos, music, comedies and tragedies. His principle was: I must not have preconceptions, I must be pure. He was the same in life, he got up in the morning and it was as if it were the first day. He declared to be 17 years old: "I don't want to come of age". He would look at the rehearsals, listen to the music, go and touch the fabrics, the objects to know the type of refraction. Then, while making himself a cigarette, he would look up to understand where he had to put the lighting trusses, place this and that. After just observing and listening. Which is what he has done in life, always. One has rarely seen him take a look at the libretto. In his early days, perhaps, but reading after you have done Cavalleria eight times, Carmen six times, The Magic Flute six times?
He made himself listen to the opera in recent years, forced to plan the lights at home by the changed habits of theaters. Also when he faced Capriccio he read the booklet. Capriccio in Cagliari, a staging by Luca Ronconi, beautiful, clean, all mirrors. When they would put mirrors he complained: "What a drama!" From the point of view of the illuminator, mirrors and projections together is madness, but he has "treated" them on several occasions and often there were disagreements with those who made the videos. Now dominant, the videos. Not that he minded them, it depended on the quality. Guido used to say that the theater should remain a space for human sense and senses. But also that the theater reflects reality, society and therefore ...
For Ronconi he illuminated the Farnese di Parma, protected by everyone, including UNESCO: the lights had to be “flying”, no foothold allowed. For Ronconi he had been in Turin for the Olympics, four or five shows at the same time, the "Ronconiadi" (Ronconics, Translator’s Note). Those who over the decades listened to the dialogues between the Maestro (who had also wanted him in his school in Santa Cristina in Umbria) and Lucifer remembers them more or less like this: "Um", "So", "Oh well", "Come on, it's done", "Yes, yes", "Dunno”, "Well, yes, see you".
Countless are Guido Levi's adventures and prestigious collaborations, but let’s let them emerge in the years to come, to keep us company.
We must immediately recall his commitment to the Cantiere d’arte di Montepulciano and the innovative Experimentum Mundi composed by Giorgio Battistelli in which each worker plays his own work instrument.
In his professional peregrinations, the experiments are remarkable: recently, in a social centre in the former workers' quarter of Naples, San Giovanni a Teduccio (taken away from the Camorra) he helped a series of youngsters to discover their own artistic talents. A lamp of his invention, the "light guide", spreads the light uniformly on the paintings and respecting their conservation; after all Lucifer created Caravaggio's lighting in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.
If necessary, he found solutions there and then and he was mortified that craftsmanship in the theater has been lost. His rule was: I do the lighting plan, I apply it, the show takes place, I’ll stay until the opening night. From the opening night onwards, those who have worked with me must be able to reproduce exactly what we have done. Simple? No, because it is true that you rely on a machine, but those on stage are not machines. If one evening they accidentally miss a cue or if they move a few centimeters away, the machine won’t know it. A delayed entrance on stage for the applause? The machine won’t know it. You need a hand on the cursor. Entrances and exits must be done manually. And you must listen to the music. Those who worked with him understood the reasons for this choice and were comfortable with it. Of course it's not as easy, you have to have a high level of concentration. You must be in the show.
Light is the source of life, it is our energy and if you turn off the light, everything disappears: feelings, emotions, shadows.
Guido wanted to be in the outdoors. For the walls of his home, he asked for the impossible: the shades of the sky, at certain times. In 2011 he held a theatrical lighting workshop at the La Mandria park in Druento, Turin, sitting on the lawn.
He lived outside, he grew up outside. The romantics who loved him stop crying only if they think he is not dead, he just retired among the elephants.
Translated from Italian by Silvia Rambaldi and Russel Bekins.