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A Masked Ball - Unmasked
Sound Design on the Lake Stage at the Bregenz Opera2000 OISTAT Scenography Commission Meeting 19-23 August 2000 at Bregenzer Festspielhaus, Bregenz, Austria Text by Peter Ruthven Hall Photos by Rick Thomas
Bregenz is situated in the heart of Europe where Austria, Germany and Switzerland meet on the shores of Lake Constance (known to the Austrians as the Bodensee): Zurich is 100 km away; Munich about 180 km. It is a small Austrian city but with a bold vision. Its annual festival is renowned worldwide for its spectacular opera stagings on the lake and every year over 160,000 visitors attend the productions, swelling the population of just 28,000 by another 50%.
The Bregenz Opera has a rich history of spectaular productions.
In July last year British director-designer team, Antony McDonald and Richard Jones's extraordinary designs for Verdi's 'A Masked Ball' hit the front pages of the international press.
In one scene the entire front of the stage rises dramatically and a scene is played under the floor "canopy!"
In another scene an antique car rises out of the floor and is "driven" around the stage!
Here, the car waits for another performance in storage under the stage.
Then, when needed, the car rises from its storage place beneath the stage.
Many of you may remember seeing the image of a dark skeleton looming large over an enormous book floating in the lake.
The cast had nicknamed him "Sparky."
Note loudspeaker that pops out of Sparky's head:
This summer the production was revived and I was lucky to attend the final performance as the British delegate at the 2000 meeting of the OISTAT Scenography Commission hosted by the Bregenzer Festspiele.
OISTAT Visitors inside Crown on tour of facilities:
The sets have since been dismantled but work is already underway on Antony and Richard's new production of 'La Bohème' which will premiere next summer.
The focus of the Scenography Commission meeting was lighting and sound design, especially that relating to the workings of this phenomenal enterprise. As a set and costume designer I may not have been the ideal candidate to relay my findings so please forgive any misunderstandings about purely technical matters.
We were privileged to be able to talk to Wolfgang Fritz, Sound Designer for the opera and his team about how he approached such a complex project.
Here's Herr Fritz, with his deputy, Peter Geiger
And here's the Sound Crew:
Herr Fritz is Head of Sound at the Vienna State Opera and also designed the sound for the open air 'Turandot' within the Imperial Palace in Beijing so he comes with good credentials. His technical accomplishments are matched by his artistic skill in utilising sound reinforcement to communicate the drama of the opera. The key to the soundscape on such a vast stage is 'directional hearing'; i.e. the sound appears to come from the direction of the performer.
Before I delve into details let me explain two prerequisites. Firstly, all the music is performed live: the orchestra sits within a semi-submerged pit beneath the stage (in this instance they were totally masked from the audience);
LCR view of orchestra from Choir Room
Panoramic View from Entance:
The principals sing and act on stage
whilst the chorus are split into a singing chorus in the pit
Note Chorus Mics Above:
and an acting chorus on stage.
Secondly, without the natural acoustic of a theatre space, all singers need to be amplified. It is also worth remembering that we are in the open air here and, much as we dream of 'sky-hooks', everything must be built off the ground and be weatherproof (from wind as much as from rain)!
Work begins one and a half years in advance of the premiere. There is always apprehension when the sets are presented as most designers do notwant the microphones and speakers to be visible. Yet in the open air on a lake the only place for these is within the set. So negotiations begin and compromises are struck as to suitable positions. The consequence has to be a decentralised system for amplification; there can be no overhead central cluster nor anything positioned underwater. But this system actually aids the focus of sound on stage.
As you can imagine there is a forest of fixed and roving microphones to consider. At least in the pit the orchestra and 'singing' chorus have fixed microphones that can be readily balanced. The opera is performed without interval so you can understand that some musicians forget that every sound they make is being broadcast. Sound engineers therefore have to filter out a certain amount of clunking, chat and background noise.
For the previous production of 'Porgy and Bess' all 88 chorus singers were also singing live on stage; it became impossible to test each microphone, to determine who was who on stage or to detect when one had left the stage for a pee! So this time the on-stage chorus is not miked.
But even if they were, by the time they got to wear the huge masks for the ball scene there would have been different problems to fix.
The stage chorus consists of local singers, dancers and actors who have learned the music but are then asked to mime as their voices can upset the balance of amplified sound. The dancers are even told to move like the non-singing chorus so as not to stand out! All should be proficient swimmers in case they fall in the lake and they do often get soaked when it rains. I suppose, for contractual reasons, this split into a singing and an acting chorus makes sense.
There are 26 fixed orchestral mics with 8 backups; 8+4 for the singing chorus; 8+8 wireless for principals with emergency replacements; 3 for the 'live' stage band (played in a soundproof remote location in the festival house). There are also complex stage comms for stage management, costumes, props, pyrotechnics, hydraulic control, lighting control, sound technicians on stage all of which require independent control as well as co-ordination. Finally there is a separate system for FOH and a 'Voice of God'
For 'A Masked Ball' the rear wall of the book provides an ideal position for the orchestral sound. Speakers are set into the wall
but are barely visible.
This sound acts as orchestra monitor for the stage singers as well as for the audience. Vocal sound is added to these speakers with a time delay (about one millisecond) to avoid any feedback (after all, the speakers are behind the performers). This 'long distance' sound complements the front loudspeakers and pulls the sound further up.
'Near distance' speakers are required at the front of the stage (neatly set-in behind acoustically transparent page edges which also double as steps) to both act as directional speakers for the various sound areas (to avoid echoes produced by main loudspeakers in the bookwall 30m behind the singer) and capture the bulk of the 7,000 in the audience.
Speakers mounted underneath the stage structure:
Details of the "pages" of the book show the perforated grill though which the speakers fire:
A balance of the two sources adds a depth, height or distance co-ordinate to any sound.
This principle works fine until an enormous floating coffin tracks across the front of the stage masking the near-distance speakers.
The "coffin" in it's under stage storage area.
Additional speakers are therefore set within the frame and cover of the coffin and are matrixed to replicate the speakers which they mask as the coffin moves across them. Then again, this coffin is a boat with no mains supply so the sound signal has to be radioed in to battery powered speakers (a generator would be too noisy!). A balance of the two sources adds a depth, height or distance co-ordinate to any sound.
Are you beginning to get the picture?
Aural and Visual Communication
The orchestra sits hidden in the pit along with a singing chorus positioned behind the conductor. None can see what is going on on-stage.The conductor requires a monitor sound of the on-stage singers and the remote live stage band.
He also needs to be able to see a reasonably close-up picture of the stage singers' faces to know that they are singing the correct music and in time. There is a camera and specially trained camerawoman who relays this detail to the conductor. The conductor in turn is relayed to large screens set in the voms of the auditorium and to hidden locations on stage. It is worth noting that in Bregenz they are aware of the light emitted by these monitors and therefore adjust their brightness so that
they remain discrete. (I grow increasingly frustrated in certain British theatres where the spill from an off-stage monitor can be brighter than the stage itself).
Work begins one and a half years in advance of the premiere. There is always apprehension when the sets are presented as most designers do not want the microphones and speakers to be visible. Yet in the open air on a lake the only place for these is within the set. So negotiations begin and compromises are struck as to suitable positions. The consequence has to be a decentralised system for amplification; there can be no overhead central cluster nor anything positioned underwater. But this system actually aids the focus of sound on stage.
Ideally one would divide the stage into 20 sound areas. 10 speakers for each area would require a total of 200 speakers which is neither possible nor practical. Instead Fritz uses just 56 speakers by channelling different signals into each. Their positions are shown in the composite speaker diagram.
Fritz in fact divided the stage into 16 sound areas. Based on the law of the first sound wave-front, it is the singer's (original and undelayed) voice that gives the listeners' ears the direction. In order to assist the singers, who are the most important sound sources in terms of timbre and direction, but who cannot sing towards all parts of the audience at one time, he needed directional loudspeakers within each area. These could be built into the set or might pop-up when required on a pneumatic telescopic stand. (It is surprising how little one notices these devices within the large stage expanse). Each speaker in each of the sound areas can be programmed with a time delay - between one and 120 milliseconds - to change the focus of the sound source and all these factors can change as the singer moves from one sound area to another.
Delay units in the sound booth are patched into the loudspeaker chains via the Ghielmetti patch panels, also located in the soundbooth.
Just to keep things complicated, there are three casts (playing consecutive nights) who strictly follow the same blocking but variations - both planned and spontaneous - do occur especially when cast members cover for each other. So whilst the main plot may be recorded, each performance has to adapt moment by moment to the eccentricities of that cast.
It is just about manageable to manually follow two singers as they move left to right and front to back across the stage. But there may be as many 8 singers moving independently at any one time. The mixing console is therefore programmed with automatic cross-fades on separate times for the main cues with manual override to cover any unexpected changes. Fritz uses a loudspeaker matrix system with a moving time delay of between 10 and 20 milliseconds.
In all, three sound systems are in operation. One, described as 'the moving system', provides directional sound as a performers moves between sound areas.
Movement of sound between speaker complexes is accomplished with the ribbon controller.
The matrix system then channels a combination of 6 or 7 different sound patterns with appropriate time delays into each speaker. These take into account volume, frequency, balance, wind adjustments and whether a singer is facing up stage.
The third is a digital mixing control system with step by step variations operating cue by cue much like any lighting control.
This console adapts to increased numbers of channels by using the same controls for different pages: one for principals, one for orchestra, one for chorus, one for effects, live stage band etc. Bregenzer Festspiele use a TOA:IX9000 digital console with 156 inputs and outputs.
The sound control room is situated undercover at the back of the seating with the windows open.
A maximum of 110,000W is required for sound.
The amplifier room is located in a special room located underneath the stage.
A special patch panel connects the output of the matrix mixer to each amplifier, allowing technicians to monitor the audio, and to quickly substitute amplifiers in case of equipment failure.
Crossovers in the amplifier room divide each sound signal into separate frequency ranges.
One of the staff sound technicians demonstrates how the crossover networks integrate with their own special patch panel.
There are 4 sound crew on stage, 2 in control (one on TOA:IX9000, one on Direction); 1 sound designer, 1 technician, 1 security/back up, 1 in the remote studio and 1 on focus camera work.
Members of the sound crew pose for the OISTAT cameras.
With so much riding on each performance it would be a disaster if anything went wrong - especially for the House staff who have to send 7,000 disappointed people home early. The Festspiele cannot afford to cancel a performance and as each is also continuous (150 minutes) there is no point at which to rectify an error.
Each performer therefore has two radio mics, with 2 transmitter packs.
Wolfgang Fritz demonstrates the harnesses used to mount the wireless mics on the actors.
Wolfgang Fritz demonstrates the placement of the wireless microphones harnesson the actor's head.
Wolfgang Fritz demonstrates the special wireless microphone patch panel which allows quick and efficient repatching of wireless microphones in case of sweatouts, or other failure.
When required, additional mics complete with their own power packs can be thrown-on round the neck of a performer. There are two digital mixing consoles plus a further analogue back-up.
An analog Soundcraft Europa console provides a completely independent backup to the main digital mixing console
Regular maintenance and routine checking is essential. The permanent speaker system is always checked thoroughly before each performance. Sometimes cables can get dislodged or torn, electrical faults are also noted. But when things do go wrong the policy is to switch off the problem rather than suffer the interference.
If it rains particularly badly, there is a scaled down version of the production which can be performed in the indoor theatre but only to 1,700 people; the rest get despatched home with or without a refund. But of course it does rain in performance, sometimes quite badly, and thunder and lightening are also regular hazards.
We were "fortunate" to be treated to an example of inclement weather at the very end of the closing night performance. The cast and crew remained undaunted, however, and refused to let the elements "rain" on their closing night celebration, rising to the occasion in impressive fashion.
The risk can equally be from bad weather in the run-up to the show as much as during it. Speaker coverings get soaked which adversely affects the sound. Water gets into everything but the noise it creates can be as problematic as the electrical damage it does. Wind is also a problem. When it exceeds 80km/hour the stage has to be evacuated even though the structure is tested to withstand far greater wind speeds.
Whether from rain or sweat, the principals' microphones can easily get damaged. As a consequence they wear a head-set with two AKG mics in place. One has a wind cover, the other acts as a back-up; both are 'sweat-safe'. It is possible for a costumed sound technician to run up to a singer and throw a third one round their neck to rectify faults.
Last summer in rehearsals a singer even fell in the lake with mics intact and clambered back on stage to continue; a new mic would have been the only solution in this instance had the rehearsal not been discontinued after this historic diving incident by King Gustav!
Good weather also presents its challenges. At temperatures of 30 degrees [Celsius]
during the day, the heat affects the high frequencies. As the air gradually cools the sound needs constant re-balancing.
Dreams for the Future
Fritz offered two potential developments for future projects. As opera is normally heard within an architectural environment he would like to add the equivalent of room reflections to the acoustic. This might include speakers behind and to the side of the audience. The LARES Lexicom system points the way forward.
Wolfgang Fritz envisions a day where the current surround sound system can be replaced with a more sophisticated electroacoustic architechtural system.
The second dream is a combined mix and matrix system with automatic sound-following: 100 sound areas would be possible with moving time delays. He reckons this might take a further 3 years to develop.
I draw attention to the wonders of designing and managing a sound design for spectacle on this scale. The important thing to remember is that you are largely unaware of the technology, merely impressed that the sound is clear and appears to come from the character that is singing. However, it is impressive how seriously the company takes their work and that all eventualities are anticipated to ensure the production is always of the highest standard.
The new production of 'La Bohème' opens on 18 July 2001 with performances through to 21 August. If you intend to fly there, Zurich is the nearest international airport. A very pleasant two hour local train journey then takes you direct from the airport into the heart of Bregenz. Hotels can be at a premium at festival time but the local tourist board can offer a range of prices or cheaper hotels out of the city. If you do not choose to go in 2001, Bregenz is an absolute must at some time in your career.