Let There Be Lights

From London and Helsinki to Montreal and Washington, D.C., cities across the worldare using their cathedrals as giant canvases for dramatic light and music shows. With Easter upon us and plans for K Street finally picking up speed, now is the time to think about how our own historic cathedral can take center stage
Photo courtesy of Newscom/UPI
The Washington National Cathedral during the "Lighting to Unite" event last year

The Idea
Downtown’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is an awe-inspiring structure, both inside and out. Rising 217 feet above K Street, the 1889 building and the Capitol (which is only 3 feet taller) dominated our skyline for decades. Since the church’s $34 million renovation was completed in 2005, it’s even more of a gem. Now, with plans for K Street’s entertainment district finally unfolding, why not follow the lead of historic cathedrals the world over by creating a light and music show that simultaneously celebrates the architecture and history of the building, livens up downtown with a unique attraction and possibly helps line the coffers of the church and its surrounding businesses?

In Washington, D.C., last year, Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter lit up the National Cathedral for three nights by projecting artful images that exhibited “the unity of humankind” on the exterior of the massive structure while concerts took place outside. More than 12,000 people came. Some European cathedrals project the work of native artists like J.M.W. Turner in Canterbury or Monet in Rouen, France. In Montreal, the action takes place inside and runs year-round. There, the spectacular Notre-Dame Basilica has hosted a multimedia light and music show nearly every night since 2001 that chronicles the history of both the city and the church. Large sail-like scrims appear, music plays and images are projected onto them as paying visitors watch from the pews, helping make the cathedral one of the city’s top five tourist attractions.

Just imagine our 1,400-seat cathedral morphing into a nightly theater that celebrates the history of our region and the origins of this architectural jewel. Spotlights could illuminate the stained glass windows and the recently rediscovered interior dome. And an exterior show (perhaps every summer weekend or every Second Saturday), could draw thousands to K Street.

The Players
It all starts with the church, of course. Having initiated a public tour in recent years, the desire is clearly there to reach out to the public. Who can help? Lighting Science Group of Rancho Cordova, the company that created the lights for the New Year’s Eve ball, could help place energy-efficient LED bulbs inside the cathedral. But you’d also need a creative director to pull it all together. One candidate: Broadway set designer Anna Louizos (Avenue Q, High Fidelity), a Yuba City native.

The Bottom Line
Every church show is unique in size, frequency and content, so there’s no easy answer for the costs. Lighting the exterior would surely be cheaper than doing a full interior show, although the latter has the appeal of being year-round, more educational and more profitable. In Montreal, the costs were covered by the church. In D.C., the artist donated his time, but the church paid to ship his equipment from Switzerland, and they also got a grant from the D.C. arts commission. We can come up with creative financing, too. Seek, as they say, and you shall find.