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Mon 21 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

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Orchestral manoeuvres

With an ever-increasing number of opera house projects under development across the Middle East, S&S takes a look at one of the most impressive and recent international developments of its type, Norway's Oslo Opera House.


With an ever-increasing number of opera house projects under development across the Middle East,
S&S

takes a look at one of the most impressive and recent international developments of its type, Norway's Oslo Opera House.

Even before an architect had been appointed, Theatre Project Consultants (TPC) was asked by the Den Norske Opera (DNO) development team to bring its theatre design experience to the conception of Norway's new Oslo Opera House.

"Our first involvement was assisting the opera company in working out what kind of rooms would be required and therefore the brief for the entire project," says Alan Russell, project director for TPC.

It is absolutely essential to have a broad range of equipment in order to satisfy the many designers and directors who will work in this house. – Alan Russell.

"We had numerous discussions with each of the company's departments on the aesthetic and technical sides of the project. All this was conducted over a two-year period, well before the architectural competition was launched.

"We distilled the essence of the consultation into a very large book, which became the brief for the open international architectural competition," says Russell.

Around 350 architectural practices entered the competition.

As a result, the Oslo Opera House has been designed with functionality dictating the architectural design, as opposed to its function being constrained by an architectural concept.

Workshops for set building, prop making, costume, wigs, armoury and so on are all housed on site, in a part of the building known as the ‘factory'.

"Incorporating these elements into the working dynamic of the building was a priority. For us the first stage was to organise all these spaces so the backstage works logically and efficiently alongside the needs of each production," explains Russell.

More specifically, designing opera auditoria brings with it a diverse, and often competing, range of demands and considerations. One such area is with acoustics.

"Musicians always want a larger orchestra pit but, the bigger the orchestra pit the further the audience are away from the stage. It's a delicate balance and there are many other comparable balances that have to be struck," says Russell.

Audiences were considered right down to the flow of people entering and exiting the building.

"The Norwegian winter is tough, so we considered that the audience would arrive well wrapped-up and would need a large cloakroom in the foyer," Russell says.

"This raised some concerns over congestion at the end of the show. We suggested a people movement simulation and with the help of this, the arrangements were optimised and have proven themselves in real-time."

Russell claims the overall geometry and shape of the auditorium was largely the result of TPC recommendations, with the proposal forming part of the overall architectural brief.

"We needed to ensure good sightlines from every seat in the auditorium. Acoustic consultants BrekkeStrandArup (BSA) were given the design at a reasonably advanced stage in that design process," states Russell.

A comprehensive brief from Statsbygg, the state's primary advisor in building and property matters, and TPC called for "excellent acoustics for traditional proscenium-type grand opera".

BSA worked closely with architects Snøhetta and TPC to develop the room's form and finish combining the functional, aesthetic, and acoustic requirements in a harmonious manner


Rob Harris, director of Arup's performing arts sector explains: "Many old [Italian] opera houses have short reverberation times of no more than one second making the words sound clear, but the orchestra dry; modern houses tend to have longer reverberation times, perhaps two seconds, producing a more concert-like orchestral sound.

The brief in Oslo followed this trend, so the challenge for BSA was to provide the right balance between the two."

Arup carried-out an acoustic analysis of the developing design using room acoustics software. The results were then fed into the design process, allowing the designers to analyse the room's dynamics before it was built. More than 200 versions of the model were developed to investigate the effects of proposals.

Jeremy Newton, auditorium acoustic designer at Arup, was faced with the conundrum of balancing the intimacy of the room, with volume outputs.

"We formed the idea of ‘ears' for the room, stepping out the auditorium walls at high level above the seating tiers," he says. "The room is narrow low down, which helps to provide clarity and intimacy and it's wide at the highest part, providing the desired reverberation.

"The house also has a large area of curtains installed. These can be extended into the room, using computer-controlled motors, to provide a less resonant acoustic for contemporary (electronic) opera and for the occasional amplified concert."

Another dramatic contributing element to its design is the stunning chandelier suspended inside an oval acoustic reflector.

Weighing 8.5 tonnes, it is the auditorium's main source of illumination via 800 LEDs, which shine through 5800 individualglass crystals, producing an important and vibrant acoustic element, which scatters and diffuses the sound contributing to the room's audio dynamics.

In terms of stage lighting, TPC was asked to ensure the systems specified were as flexible and future-proof as economically and physically possible. Stage lighting is hung from five trusses. On either side of the stage are two mobile towers to allow adjustments to the width of the proscenium without damaging the acoustics.

The DNO chose the ETC Congo package for performance space lighting control. Congo jrs are used both by the lighting director and in the stage manager's booth, which also links to the house and work light system.

More than 300 Selecon luminaires service the performance spaces, including short- and medium-throw Acclaim PCs, Rama High Performance fresnels and par cans to long throw Arena High Performance fresnels, 1000W Lui four-way Cycs and Groundrows, plus 1250W Aurora four-way pole operated Cycs and standard Groundrow units.

Moving lights consist primarily of Martin Mac 2000 Performance and Mac 2000 washes. Numerous par 64s, all fitted with scrollers, fill out the overhead rig. In addition, the basic lighting rig comprises HMI wash, tungsten 2kW fresnels and ETC Source Fours.

"In a project of this importance, it is absolutely essential to have an extensive range of equipment in order to satisfy the many designers and directors, who will work in this house," adds Russell.

House and work lights are controlled by three E.GO Prego systems. These flexible systems interact with the ETC Congo stage lighting control, in conjunction with the stage manager's system and also use a large number of control panels throughout the venue.

The sophistication of the stage machinery, combined with the size of its surroundings and the close proximity of the ‘factory' to the stage, have been organised to ensure the house works efficiently.

It allows the DNO to mount two scenically complex productions a day, including a full rehearsal, while running only the minimum number of staff.

"The Oslo Opera House boasts one of the most technologically advanced opera stages in the world. It comprises 16 individual elements, which can be elevated, angled, or rotated opening up the opportunity for set designers to create dynamic landscapes on stage," claims Russell.