With COVID-19 spreading across the globe in March and Northern Italy’s Veneto region one of the worst hit areas, work on the fourth edition of RTL 102.5 Power Hits Estate was halted abruptly. However, certain that the show must somehow go ahead, with the support of local authorities, organisers took to their sketch pads and accounting spreadsheets to devise a COVID-19 secure, technologically advanced spectacle – transforming an empty, historic, UNESCO-protected, 15,000-capacity Verona Arena into a hotbed of light, performance and pyrotechnics.
For the past four years, the title of ‘Best Hit of the Summer’ has been awarded at RTL 102.5 Power Hits Estate to a sold-out arena of music fans, with performances from up to 30 artists each night, from Italian acts to international stars such as OneRepublic, 30 Seconds to Mars and, more recently, Lewis Capaldi. The 2019 edition was even introduced via video message by the queen of pop, Madonna. However, amid the uncertain landscape and ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, organisers went above and beyond the call of duty to deliver something special.
At the heart of RTL 102.5 Power Hits Estate 2020 was a team of longstanding collaborators, including: Executive Producer, Fabio Marcantelli; Production Manager, Luigi Vallario; Show Designer, Francesco De Cave; Filming Director, Luigi Antonini; Backline Supplier, Lorenzo Mari; Broadcaster, Stefano Pretoni; Audio / Video / Lighting and Tech Crew Supplier, Emilio Lombardi; Stage Manager, Daniele Baddaria; Production Asset and Producer’s Assistant, Fiona MacKay; and Stagehand Crew Boss, Daniele Cosanni.
Following the ban on mass gatherings, the decision was made to broadcast the event across two Sky channels, alongside a livestream for live music fans in lockdown across social media. “The situation in Italy is quite problematic because there are limitations to any amount of crowding of people,” Production Manager, Luigi Vallario began, speaking to TPi over Zoom. “The limits are set at 800 people in an outdoor venue and 200 people indoors, depending on the size of the venue.”
Tasked with bringing the daring vision to life was a band of RTL 102.5’s trusted technical suppliers – Rooster, Italstage, Pirotecnica Sant’Antonio, Stagehand Accademy, 3Zero2, M-Three satcom, Mokkes’ Backline Rent, Autoprompter Cristiano Grassini and Flycam Italia. However, despite the extravagance of the event, the PM recalled a tightening of the purse strings.
“There were budget issues because if you don’t have a paying audience that takes a huge toll. We are blessed with suppliers who wanted to be present and helped us with cut-rate quotes, where we covered the live expenses for the crew,” he explained. “The budget was a huge obstacle because we had an incredible show to put on with half the budget of last year’s event. The venue was also an obstacle because it’s protected by UNESCO, so we had to spend money to ensure that the monument was protected and not damaged by the pyrotechnics.”
‘WE WENT IN LIKE ROMANS… EXCEPT WITH 18 TRUCKS’
Executive Producer, Fabio Marcantelli worked closely with Show Designer, Francesco De Cave, to find a solution to a seemingly impossible situation; creating a spectacle with no fans and a limited budget – a symptom of the post-lockdown ‘new normal’ events sector.
Typically, the collective starts thinking about the next edition of RTL 102.5 Power Hits Estate following the conclusion of the current edition. This year, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, proceedings took a very different turn, causing the duo to change tack.
“The decision to hold the event was made in March, which was the peak of the Italian lockdown, so the only way it was feasible to go ahead was with no audience in the arena whatsoever,” Marcantelli commented, explaining the innovative measures taken to ensure the safety of the performing artists and technical production crew. “Every artist during rehearsals and the show would arrive at the venue at a designated time, in one way and leave a different way to stop cross contamination.”
Artists were only allowed one person from the label and one from management with them. “There was also a team of 10 people, each assigned to an act, escorting the performing artists with temperatures measured regularly according to a strict schedule; once tested, the performing artists were given a bracelet to indicate the measures taken,” Marcantelli stated.
He added: “The barricade surrounding the arena was completely blacked out to avoid any congregation of prospective audience members or crowding outside the venue. No artist was given a dressing room – no matter how big a star – to keep the number of people inside the arena to the bare essential at all times.”
The result was a central stage on the exposed, bare sand of the UNESCO-protected Verona Arena, making way for a 360° view of the historic Roman setting – an unprecedented world first.
“It’s the way the Romans would have imagined the arena,” DeCave remarked. “We went in without a stage. We provided minimum staging on the bare earth – the arena is never seen like that during the typical opera season, with performing artists on the sand. We went in like Romans… except with 18 trucks.”
Having done the majority of the show’s pre-programming on an ETC Road Hog 4 at his home studio, De Cave repurposed the arena’s historic, Roman-era stone steps at the core of the show design, filling each empty seat with scenographic lighting instead of patrons – including 150 Wash LED fixtures chosen for colours, 180 LED bars, 90 RGBW strobes, 24 fog generators, 24 flame throwers, 160 spots, and 80 beam lights.
“The mood of the show, with or without an audience, is heavily dependent on audience participation. Previous editions have seen artists making entrances to the stage from different sections of the arena, which is engaging for the audience,” De Cave explained.
This year, that was impossible, so the designer devised an extensive light show, which featured lights on every step of the arena, instead of the audience – providing the presence of an audience in the empty stadium. [Lumen beings, if you will.]
The show was shot with 18 cameras, two flycam drones, a radio steadycam, one jimmy jib and four dolly cameras. An EVS system was put in place for the separate camera recordings and for the RVM management – all important features of the show. “We didn’t just want the stage to be viewed from the front, so we incorporated a vertical dimension, using two drones spanning the ellipse of the arena to add depth and height to proceedings,” De Cave reported. “The virtual audience could benefit from the way it was shot.”
Conventional lighting was achieved by 50 Dwe LED SunRises, 12 PROLIGHTS ECL Fresnels and 20 ELC CYC 1000s. While moving lights came in the shape of 104 Bubble Bee Beams; 128 PROLIGHTS Sun Bars, 88 Sunblast FCs, 58 Stark 1000s, 14 Solars and 12 Luma 1500s. A total of 70 Robe Megapointes, 92 Tarrantulas, and 24 BMFL Blades joined 58 Light Sky Aurora Spots on the rig. “I’m always on the hunt for new fixtures, however, there are certain units I never work without – molefays and LED strobes – because they give me the possibility of making special moments to complement the artistry on stage,” De Cave said.
The stage also became the main pyrotechnical launchpad. SFX Technician, Erik Granzon, and 22 technicians oversaw 270 launch positions, 350 firing units, 12km of fuse, 125 pyrotechnic batteries to colour the venue in red and white over the course of 300 hours project time and 80 days of lab preparation. “To be able to create a production which is this extravagant, filling the arena with lights and pyrotechnics, using every space of the arena, was only achievable thanks to the technical proficiencies of the crew involved and the lack of audience,” De Cave acknowledged. “Despite how amazing it was to work on, we hope to never have the possibility of creating a show like this again. We can’t wait to have an audience instead of an empty arena, as soon as it is safe to do so.”
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‘WE GAVE VISIBILITY TO VERONA WHEN IT NEEDED IT THE MOST’
An Allen & Heath dLive digital system and Allen & Heath S7000 consoles were used for stage direction and music broadcasting, with an Allen & Heath Avantis deployed for stage communication.
The entire system was digitally connected via Allen & Heath GigaAce and FiberAce cards, and two A&H Dx32 analog input / output modules were deployed in the arena, connected via cat 6a cable to the four Dx32 ports of the Allen & Heath DME 64 in the stage direction, which acted as an engine for the stage S7000 console, analogue inputs and outputs and an exchange of MADI signals with the OB van via the Allen & Heath superMADI board.
A Sennheiser 6000 Digital series was the wireless microphone system of choice with a Sennhesier 2050 series chosen as the in-ear system, divided into two stations – one on the south side and one north side of the venue, with a double system of transmitting and receiving antennas.
With no audience, there was no traditional PA. A total of 12 K-array KM112 and a pair of KM312s were used for stage monitoring; eight KR402I and four KR202I systems were chosen as monitoring for the two walkways and for the royal boxes – one north and another south. Last, but not least, eight Kh2s and four KMT18i sub K-arrays were used as diffusion during the dancer’s performance on the arena steps.
Recalling an “emotional” experience of putting together the spectacle in the face of adversity, De Cave praised RTL 102.5 for allowing him to design a production, which is “probably the biggest gig in Verona Arena”, despite the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
“We gave international and national visibility to Verona during a time when the region needed it most; the local authorities were supportive of our vision and granted us permission to create an experience for a city devastated by the lack of tourists due to the pandemic,” Marcantelli explained, reflecting on the ambitious project. “I don’t think anyone will be granted permission to use that much pyrotechnics ever again,” he laughed. “Thankfully, we left the UNESCO-protected building standing.”
‘AN EXPERIENCE FOR LIVE MUSIC FANS IN LOCKDOWN’
Indicative of the live events industry, the production crew adapted and reinvented, exhibiting a never-say-die attitude despite the litany of COVID-19 restrictions. “RTL is an annual appointment on Italian music fans’ calendars,” Marcantelli recalled. “We didn’t want to give in to the COVID-19 restrictions. We wanted to provide an experience for music fans in lockdown.”
The production was an experience which was not only important for national morale, but one proving the human creativity and proficiency of live events professionals and their ability to presenting solutions in the most difficult of times. Although broadcast as a TV show, the event maintained the tempo of a radio broadcast.
“Even though we didn’t have too much time, we managed to carve out the right number of hours in order to get the right look and aesthetic of each individual performance,” De Cave concluded. “We’re all extremely pleased with the results.”
This article originally appeared in issue #255 of TPi, which you can read here.