BlackTrax helps transform Madama Butterfly for Opera Australia

Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly

Graeme Murphy’s arresting new production of Madama Butterfly by Opera Australia is a contemporary look at Puccini’s alluring heroine. It’s a tale that begins in rapturous love and ends in the cruellest heartbreak. Fragments of film flutter across the stage, creating a dynamic backdrop for Murphy’s vision of Butterfly while incorporating innovative tech and both of CAST’s flagship products, wysiwyg and BlackTrax.

Madama Butterfly’s story is relatively simple to understand, and while sung in Italian, there are English and simplified Chinese surtitles. Pinkerton, a US naval officer, is seeing the world in the name of war and pleasure. When ashore in Nagasaki, Japan, he seeks the best and fairest woman and is offered Cio-Cio-San. Constrained, cocooned, caught in a moment of desire, Butterfly is incandescent. In her exotic embrace, Pinkerton finds paradise, then carelessly condemns his bride to purgatory.

The production is filled with a plethora of new tech toys. Double revolves, 16 LED screens, laser projectors, BlackTrax followspots and the new repertory moving light rig for Opera Australia. With so much going on visually – the audience is certainly never bored.

Murphy has replaced inner spiritual calm with external objectification and subjugation as the dominant motif that pervades both moments of love and despair. Video projections reinforce or counterpoint this with sympathetic textural monochrome relieved at crucial moments by garish dissonant colour.


Trailer | Madama Butterfly at Sydney Opera House

Detailed Planning

Michael Scott Mitchell the designer provided about 600 renders and DWG’s of screen positions and content. As with all projection shows, the balance of lighting changes significantly. In the old days, projection was too dim.  Now it has the potential to dominate the visual palette. Damien Cooper, the show’s lighting designer, was concerned finding that sweet spot of balance would be an issue. Sean, the AV designer, was very collaborative in balancing the stage. The few times that AV turned off during rehearsal showed the team just how bright the lighting rig was against AV. Opera Australia upgraded their standard rig to equipment that could match the AV. The AV was running at 200 nits. About 5% of what they can do.

Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly

“We spent two days with wysiwyg preprogramming lighting cues, which I do find to be very helpful. Time was our biggest enemy on this show. I think I ended up with 90 minutes of dark time before cast came on stage. The pre-plot gave us a great starting structure to allow us to work over the rehearsal. The Programmer John Llwelyn was not only handling direction from me but AV triggers and BlackTrax triggers. I have to say, hats off to John. An excellent programmer.” – Damien Cooper, Lighting Designer

Jason Morphett handles the BlackTrax programming. BlackTrax was chosen for the complete choice of angle for the followspots. Madama Butterfly used a ghost gauze for projection which limited traditional followspot angles. Butterfly has four costume changes in Act 1, finally dropping down to a white towel with bare shoulders. This meant she could not use BlackTrax, so she stood out from the crowd with a traditional followspot. A pretty good result! BlackTrax requires a large amount of programming, every iris cue, every exit. Opera Australia staff prefer to program each one.

In addition to the Opera Australia rep lighting rig, added was a 12 x Mac Aura to the outer revolve. An attempt to reclaim some side lighting that the revolving side LED panels blocked out. These were used to highlight flown dancers, under the cantilevered scenery structures and to bounce off the Harlequin Hi-Shine mirrored floor. These were run off batteries and inverters with WDMX.

Final Thoughts

Photo courtesy of Madama Butterfly

“Overall, I am pleased with what Butterfly became. As mentioned before time was our greatest obstacle. We had two x three-hour piano dresses to tech this show with all these ingredients and two casts of principals. Congratulations to the lighting crew on getting us there so smoothly. Butterfly will remount next year in Melbourne.” – Damien Cooper, Lighting Designer

Opera Australia’s new production of Madama Butterfly pushes the boundaries of traditional stories, breaking the mold as much as possible for an operatic production.  Graeme Murphy gives Madama Butterfly new life and meaning in today’s fast-paced world.

“BlackTrax is a genuinely exciting advancement in lighting technology. For Opera Australia, it allows us to “find” and “follow” the singers wherever they might be and in opera performances we often have singers arriving late or substituting for another artist at very short notice. BlackTrax give us flexibility and allows us to do this with a minimum of fuss.” – Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini

More about Damien Cooper:

A Sydney-based LD who has done over 300 original shows, Damien cut his teeth in contemporary dance, before moving onto plays, ballet, opera and musicals. Damien has also done stage lighting for a few feature films. In North America, Damien has done shows on Broadway, Houston Grand Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Canadian Opera Company, BAM, The Joyce. Damien is a staff member at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) where he teaches the Master of Fine Arts lighting design course.

Damien started working with Graeme Murphy, Madama Butterfly’s director, in the late 90’s. He was artistic director for Sydney Dance Company. The duo has since gone on to work on numerous contemporary dance, ballet and operas that have traveled the world. Graeme asked Damien to be involved in Butterfly early on in its development.

More about Opera Australia:

Opera Australia is a performing arts company with a mission to perform some of the greatest music ever written to as many people as possible.

As one of the world’s busiest opera companies, Opera Australia presents more than 600 performances every year. More than half a million people see their work on stage, and many more tune into radio broadcasts.

Opera Australia is the biggest employer in the Australian arts industry, employing a huge range of people including stage managers, wigmakers, scenic artists and even a lifesaver, to name just a few.

Opera Australia regularly works with some of the world’s most prestigious houses to create co-productions of powerful, often lesser-known operas.

The Crew


  • Massimo Zanetti
  • Nicholas Milton
  • Brian Castles-Onion


  • Graeme Murphy

Creative Associate

  • Janet Vernon

Production Designer

  • Michael Scott-Mitchell

Costume Designer

  • Jennifer Irwin

Lighting Designer

  • Damien Cooper

Master Electrician & BlackTrax Diviner

  • Jason Morphett

Costume Designer     

  • Jennifer Irwin

Lighting Designer

  • Damien Cooper

Master Electrician & BlackTrax Diviner

  • Jason Morphett

Lighting Programmer

  • John Llewelyn
  • Suzy Brooks

Lighting Supervisors

  • David Parsons
  • Catherine Alexander

Opera Theatre Head Electrician

  • Kyle Bockmann

Followspot Operators

  • Jemima Flett
  • Graham Buck

Floor Electrics

  • Lindsay Williams
  • Jake Mortimer

Digital Content

  • Sean Nieuwenhuis

Assistant Director    

  • Shane Placentino

Lighting Equipment and Extras    

  • Chameleon Touring Systems provided lighting and lighting hires