Of all the enduring holiday traditions, none are quite so beloved and magical as The Nutcracker. Mikko Nissinen’s spectacular production for the Boston Ballet turns four this year and has arrived at the Boston Opera House with a distinctive new glow: Award-winning Finnish lighting designer Mikki Kunttu has been brought on board to provide the production with a brand-new lighting design.
“I have worked twice before with Mikki, and I find him absolutely extraordinary,” Nissinen said. “We just premiered this production three years ago and in order to really maintain it and move it forward, of course with the quality of dancing, but also with a different concept of lighting design. We felt this was the right time.”
With a company of 68 dancers and more than 200 Boston Ballet School students featured in the production, The Nutcracker is no small feat. Finding ways to keep the production fresh is of great importance to Nissinen, not only for obvious reasons, but also because The Nutcracker is often a gateway into the world of ballet for many audience members. “We have to serve that purpose,” Nissinen said.
Although Kunttu is one of the busiest, most respected lighting designers in the industry, this is his very first Nutcracker. His work can be seen across multiple genres: dance, theater, music, opera, and television. He collaborated with Nissinen and the Boston Ballet twice before, for Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty in 2005 and Jorma Elo’s Carmen in 2006. “It’s fantastic to be back at Boston Ballet,” Kunttu told me by phone from his hotel room at the Ritz. “It’s one of my favorite companies in the whole world. Amazing people, and I love the city. And I get to see great hockey here also!”
During the course of our conversation, one thing left me particularly astonished: Kunttu designed the entire production on a computer from his studio in Finland; his design wasn’t seen on stage—by anyone—until the tech run-throughs the week before Thanksgiving.
Kunttu works off of things like sketches of the costumes and sets, which he builds in 3D on a computer. “Not all of the things you can really, really do in a virtual model,” he said. “Some lights just don’t look real if you do it in 3D, so a lot of things are left to be done on stage.”
At the time that I spoke to Kunttu, the technical rehearsals hadn’t yet occurred. I was eager to learn just how smoothly—or not—the process of inserting a brand new lighting design that had been designed virtually had gone. By the time I talked to Nissinen, The Nutcracker had been in performances for about a week: “My God, it changed and evolved all through the dress rehearsal,” he said. “It just crystallized his vision of it. Everybody’s super happy.”
I supposed that it might be more challenging to work a new lighting design into an existing production rather than collaborate with the other designers for a brand-new production, but Kunttu actually finds the opposite to be true: “When you have a starting point like this, an existing production, it’s easier to start because you have a video to look at and a reference for all of the action,” Kunttu said.
His biggest challenge, however, was doing Robert Perdziola’s gorgeous and lavish sets justice: “The set design is so fantastic, so that puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders, that I’m lighting it the way it deserves to be lit,” he said. “I want to make it as exciting as possible.”
MIKKO NISSINEN’S THE NUTCRACKER. RUNS THROUGH 12.31 AT THE BOSTON OPERA HOUSE, 539 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. BOSTONBALLET.ORG/NUTCRACKER