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John Lamb, Published March 26 2014

Trollwood alum shines new light on F-M Opera

FARGO – When Josh Epstein does a good job, audiences see the light and don’t even think about him. If not, he’s left them in the dark.

As a theatrical lighting designer, Epstein doesn’t just flick the switches and turn on the spotlights. He’s responsible for setting the tone and subtly revealing elements of the story through the light’s color and intensity.

Those aspects will be on display this weekend as Epstein illuminates the world premieres of “Buried Alive” and “Embedded” with the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.

“This is a daunting production for an established opera company,” Epstein said about doing the premieres. “I was intrigued and a little nervous … It’s exciting to get the first crack at it, something no one has done before. It’s an ideal situation for a designer.”

The two 45-minute dramatic operas may have both been inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, but Epstein says the pieces have different personalities and require different touches.

“ ‘Buried Alive’ is much more atmospheric,” he explains. “It’s hazy, dreamy. You’re never sure if it’s real, moving in and out of the dream all of the time. ‘Embedded’ is more of a psychological thriller.”

It’s a long way from the main-stage musicals he did at the old Trollwood site from 1999 through 2002, his first professional jobs.

“We’d have to focus in mosquito netting,” Epstein recalls. “I just remember hanging all of those lights was so treacherous.”

He’s hoping to have enough downtime this weekend to check out the new site in south Moorhead.

Epstein was in theater before graduating from Minot High in 1993. He went on to the University of Chicago to study political science, but found himself the de facto lighting designer since he’d done tech work in high school.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it,” he says of his first job.

His skill set and vision have developed since then, but he still loves his work.

“He’s great artistically, but he balances that with a lot of realism and being very level-headed in what could be a very challenging situation,” says Larry Edelson, whose company, American Lyric Theater, is producing the works with Fargo-Moorhead and Fort Worth Operas. “He was the first choice and really the only choice as far as I was concerned to do this project.”

Edelson tapped Epstein to work on four previous operas, including “La traviata” in 2011 for the Minnesota Opera.

Epstein does even more work with regional theaters around the country, though he’s based in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.

There’s a benefit to working with the same directors, he says, as it allows for a stronger rapport.

“You almost have to read their mind. I spend a lot of my time wrapping my mind around what they want,” he says. “You’re making directorial choices in a collaborative, visual way.”

One of his frequent collaborators, director Wendy C. Goldberg, brought him to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre twice, for “Doll House” in 2010 and last fall for “Tribes.”

“Nobody does it better than the Guthrie,” he says. “When I first walked into the Guthrie and got to design there, I was a little star-struck. That was a highlight, more so than being an associate (light designer) on Broadway.”

The Guthrie allowed him to work bigger, using about 350 lights for those shows. This weekend he’ll use about 110.

While he’s enjoyed working in regional theater and opera, he’d like to experience the excitement of opening a show on the Great White Way.

“I’d be lying if I said my career would be complete without my name on a Broadway show,” he said.

But even getting credit as the lighting designer on a Broadway hit doesn’t ensure fame.

“No one walks away from a show talking about the lighting,” he says.

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s Poe Project: “Buried Alive” and “Embedded”

When: Both shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday

When: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University

Info: This program is intended for mature audiences. Tickets range from $5 for students and $40 to $80 for adults. (701) 239-4558. www.fmopera.org


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533