At the risk of stating the obvious, we at TPi are obsessed with the technology behind event production. From moving lights to complex video screens and cutting-edge developments in audio, we’re always keen to cover the latest innovation in the sector. It is for this reason that opera – an acoustic art form by its very nature – is rarely featured in our pages. PA boxes and mics are a rare sight anywhere near such a production. So, when we heard that Nevill Holt Opera had joined forces with Southby Productions and Sound Designer, Mark Rogers to create an outdoor d&b Soundscape system as well as a digital acoustic shell that recreated the playing environment of Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall for the orchestra, to say we were intrigued would be an understatement. Swapping our usual band T-shirt and jeans for a suit, TPi caught up with the team behind Nevill Holt Opera in the stunning surroundings of Nevill Holt Hall to find how the productions of La Traviata and Don Giovanni had embraced 21st Century technology.
Nevill Holt Opera has always embraced change, with one of its major goals being to empower people from a variety of demographics with wide-ranging educational programmes. However, after the national lockdown, when the team was given the green light for its summer series, it seemed counterintuitive to bring people into a theatre with social distancing protocols in place, which would inevitably limit the audience size.
“We had two choices with these two performances,” began Nevill Holt Opera Managing Director, Annie Lydford. “Either we put them on in our own indoor theatre, which would mean a socially distanced audience, or we put on a show in the grounds and make the production even bigger.” With a wider community that is desperate to go to live events once again, the team had no doubt which was the best option. “It’s really exciting to have a creative response to the difficult circumstances that COVID-19 has put us under for such a long time,” Lydford said.
Acknowledging the initial fears about maintaining the audio quality in an outdoor setting, Lydford was pleased to report that any negative preconceptions from the Nevill Holt audience have been “well and truly blown out of the water”. “I have never had so many patrons come to me after a show and comment on the quality of the sound,” she stated enthusiastically. “Many people, during the performance, reported completely forgetting that the show was being amplified.”
FROM ORCHESTRAL PIT TO PA
Winding the clocks back to the inception of this latest Soundscape project, Lydford explained how they came across this solution. “Back in 2017, we had worked with Sound Designer, Mark Rogers on a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. He was so great that we collaborated a few times after and when it came to these two outdoor shows, we asked for his advice.”
It was Rogers who suggested d&b’s Soundscape solution and introduced the team to Chris Jones from Southby Production – the team behind Bjork’s famed immersive performances. Joining both Rogers, Jones and Lydford in those early meetings was Nevill Holt Opera Artistic Director and La Traviata Conductor, Nicholas Chalmers. “The direction of sound is vital in opera,” began Chalmers, as he explained why traditionally, the left and right PA setup simply doesn’t work for the format. “The ear directs you to where all the drama is – especially when you are dealing with a big set.”
When the team was given the demo at d&b’s HQ, they began to see what was possible and how, with a Soundscape system, the audience would be able to hear true replication of what was happening onstage, with an impressive array of speakers laid out around the arena. The result was that the set for the entire show was effectively a giant thrust from the main tent that housed the orchestra. The audience then surrounded the stage with a main grandstand, two winged stands with a third set of seats behind the thrust closer to the orchestra.
“One of my greatest concerns going down this path was that we might lose some of the emotion in the singers’ voices,” stated Chalmers. “Susanna especially, who is playing Violetta, has an amazing emotional quality in her voice. When we get closer towards act two and three, you really want to be able to hear the emotion and, thankfully, the system still very much catches those moments.”
Chalmers was conducting just outside the main tent between the orchestra and the thrust stage when the actors were performing. “I’ve got my own wedges, which is useful as I get to hear the singers back to me. The orchestra also fed some of the singers, although I try to avoid listening to them too much, as with opera you want to keep things moving.”
With a FOH position just to the right of the main grandstand, TPi spoke to Sound Designer, Mark Rogers, and Mike Cox, who was assisting in the setup as well as manning the d&b spatial software. “I’m mixing during the show, while Mike is in control of the spatial audio movement of the soloists on the touchscreen,” began Rogers, going on to commend the support he had received from both the team at Southby as well as d&b audiotechnik’s Adam Hockley. Rogers mixed on a DiGiCo SD10. “DiGiCo desks are my go-to for this type of show,” he commented. From his desk, he also fired QLab cues to the Soundscape system that triggered the mass choreographed movement of the chorus cast. While these large movements of many actors were very much choreographed, when it came to the soloists, the more refined touch of Cox was needed to give each singer the freedom to move where they wished on the stage without impeding their performance.
“Soundscape has opened many options when it comes to production,” mused Rogers. “With the second show – Don Giovanni – right up until the last few weeks of rehearsals, the Director was still coming up with ideas of how we could use the sound system to our advantage. For example, there is a moment where traditionally musicians from the orchestra play off-stage. That would be difficult to do in this outdoor mic’d environment, but by using Soundscape, we can place those elements of the orchestra in the crowd to dramatic effect. There’s also a statue that comes to life and walks around. Using both Soundscape and d&b’s En-Space reverb, we were able to give this character a spine-tingling ghostly aura that moved as he moved.”
The mere presence of microphones separated this production from many other operas. “Opera singers tend not to like microphones,” stated Rogers. “A big task for us with this show was gaining the confidence of the cast.” Due to the potential issues with wind, they were unable to go for forehead microphones, opting instead for side-of-the-face models with DPA windshields. The majority of the cast used Shure Axient wireless packs with a few foundation cast members using Sennheiser G3s.
TPi grabbed some time with one of the leads of the show, Luis Gomes, who played the role of Alfredo Germont. “This production has been quite a different experience as a performer,” he began. “In opera, as a singer, you rely a lot on the acoustics of the theatre and never really use mics. You must be conscious of them more than you would in a normal production when you’re gesturing. The results Mark and the team have produced are amazing.”
Having had the opportunity to enjoy the Soundscape system from the audience perspective during rehearsals, Gomes was “really impressed” with how natural it all sounded. “It didn’t sound like amplification and didn’t disrupt what was happening onstage at all,” he commented, adding that having an engineer like Rogers, who is a classical musician in his own right and understands the nuances of the genre, made all the difference.
Southby Productions’ Chris Jones walked TPi through the impressive arsenal of black boxes present across the stage and around the audience area – 81 to be precise. “Following our work on Bjork’s Soundscape show, we had invested in a lot of wide-dispersion speakers, which are essential for the Soundscape setup,” he stated, pointing out the wide range of models, including V10Ps, Y10Ps, SL-SUBs, T10s, E4s, E8s, M4s and B6-SUBs.
“Over the past three years, we have worked hard to become a specialist in this solution so we can take clients through the whole process, demoing the system to creating a solution for them,” stated Jones, using the latest collaboration with Nevill Holt as an example. “This partnership with d&b has been invaluable for us as we can lean on their educational output and individuals such as Adam Hockley, who specialise in this style of music.”
Jones believes Soundscape was the ideal solution for this project. “The outdoor setup included a large diamond thrust extension to the main orchestral stage which goes far into the audience. This means a singer could be performing as much as 25m from a traditional L/R loudspeaker system flown on each side of the main stage. This distance equates to around 72 milliseconds of delay from when an audience member would be hearing the natural sound wave propagating from a singer’s mouth versus the reinforced sound wave.”
This would have been very disconcerting to the audience as they would be hearing the singer’s voice twice. “Soundscape solves this problem by placing multiple loudspeakers across every stage front edge and allowing the sound designer to now treat the singer as an ‘object’ in Soundscape and delaying the reinforced sound of the singer back to its original source – the singer’s mouth. The two are now perfectly aligned,” he explained.
Jones was keen to point out just how many doors the company’s specialisation in Soundscape had opened. “As well as being involved in this production, we are working on an immersive theme park installation with the sound designer behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as well as a range of future Soundscape projects including one that fuses an orchestra with a well-known EDM artist. The next 12 months are going to be a lot of fun!”
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THE ACOUSTIC SHELL
Until this point, the immersive Soundscape system experienced by the audience has justifiably been the focus. However, that was only half of the story. Moving upstage toward the orchestral tent, there was even more acoustic trickery as the audio team created a fully functional digital acoustic shell. Performing from a tent structure in the hills of Leicestershire, the Manchester Camerata – which was accompanying the singers of La Traviata – was transported to Stanford University’s own Opera Hall thanks to d&b’s acoustic simulations. Throughout the tent were 15 d&b E8s speakers.
“Normally when you do an outdoor event when the orchestra are in a tent structure, you would expect for some of the musicians to have trouble hearing each other, such as the back chairs of the violins being unable to hear the double basses,” stated Rogers, outlining some of the issues with recreating classical music outdoors. “This has been made even worse in COVID times when we are adhering to social distancing measures and each player is even further apart.”
However, the d&b acoustic shell was able to effectively recreate the natural feedback you would expect from a concert hall. “We listened to a few of the versions that d&b had sampled from other halls, but the Stanford emulation was our eventual choice due to the smoothness of the reverb,” stated Rogers. “Both Mike and I come from the world of Abbey Road Studios and expensive reverbs – hence the Bricasti M7 we have at FOH – and we are very fussy that it can never sound metallic, but this particle emulation sounded very natural. We were blown away as soon as we turned it on when we had the orchestra in place – it sounded fantastic.”
The musicians were just as impressed with the solution as the engineers. “When we were approached about this show and told it would be outdoors, we were apprehensive, with visions of flapping sides of a tent and a less-than-adequate monitoring system,” commented Manchester Camerata Head of Artistic Development and Programming, James Thomas. “However, as soon as we heard about the concept of the acoustic shell, we were all very excited.”
Each of the instruments was individually mic’d, utilising a range of models including DPA 4099s, Neumann KM84s, KM184s and AKG 414s. “One thing that came out of the social distancing measures was that using one microphone to pick up a few players was impossible,” interjected Cox. “This meant mic’ing each player, which inevitably meant more channels, but in the end this worked to our advantage as we were able to create more separation within the mix.”
With each of the musicians being mic’d, Thomas explained this meant musicians had to adapt their playing style. “When the strings first performed some pizzicato section of the pieces [plucking the strings of a violin] we found it was incredibly loud. In a hall, a player often has to give a lot to the pizzicato section to give off the right sound, but the system picked it up so well they didn’t have to work so hard on those sections.”
To close, TPi asked Thomas how he and the entire Manchester Camerata felt about returning to more ‘traditional’ outdoor events now they had been treated to this system. “It’s an interesting question,” he laughed. “I would love to use this again whenever we can, but it will always come down to what is necessary for each show – along with logistics and budget, I’m sure.”
Chalmers gave his final thoughts on the acoustic shell system. “From the beginning, I was concerned with the orchestra playing in a tent and not getting the adequate, natural feedback from their own instruments and the other players. However, we were very much sold on the idea as soon as d&b presented the system and showed us an example from the Ravenna Festival. There was a worry among some of the team that it would never sound as good on stage when we left the studio rehearsals, but when we got on site and the system was turned on, it was even better.”
BUILDING THE SHELL
Acorn Structures was responsible for building the shell, working closely with Lydford to create an external space that would allow the productions to go ahead even if internal COVID-19 restrictions were in place.
Acorn Structures Senior Sales and Business Development, Toby Shann advised on the project and spoke to TPi about the work Acorn did on site. “One of our mid-range 18m dome stages, used for events such as Victorious Festival and concerts including Blossoms and Jess Glynne, was installed with a raised platform to the front. The platform was dressed by another contractor to create a grassland feel so the performance could be extended beyond the stage. “In addition, we supplied and installed a covered seating grandstand with a capacity for approximately 300 people as well as a covered wheelchair platform. Acorn Co-Founder and Managing Director of Structures, Andy Nutter added: “Working with the team at Nevill Holt Opera has been a pleasure and we are glad that, though their inside theatre had re-opened before the production of La Traviata, Acorn could help create an external space that complimented the work of the company.”
With TPi witnessing the closing night of La Traviata, the team at Nevill Holt Opera was excited to welcome the next production of Don Giovanni. As the cast toasted to a successful run, Annie Lydford summed up. “For the five shows which have taken place so far, I’ve been blown away by how many people have come up to me afterwards and said how amazing the orchestra sounded. I never expected to get that kind of reaction to the sound quality while hosting performances outdoors. Due to this success, the floodgates are open now in terms of what is possible. It could be interesting to supplement our regular theatre productions with an outside event welcoming more than double the usual capacity. It completely changes what’s possible.”
This article originally appeared in issue #265 of TPi, which you can read here.