Opera by the sea

AUTHOR: Inavate

Northern Light has installed AV, sound reinforcement and lighting systems at the recently completed Wexford Opera House in the Republic of Ireland.

For over half a century, the town of Wexford in the Republic of Ireland has been synonymous with high quality opera productions. Now in its 57th year, and following a decade of planning and construction, Wexford is now the proud home of Europe’s most modern multi-purpose Opera house and live performing arts venue.

By the early 1990’s the board of Wexford Festival Opera company was faced with the twin problems of a structurally deteriorating building and a chronic lack of room. Unable to expand audiences any further, and limited by the backstage area in what could be achieved artistically the Theatre Royal was simply too small to accommodate the ambitions of the company any longer.

The decision was therefore taken to start afresh and to build a new theatre on the existing site. Surrounding properties were purchased over the following years before negotiations were opened with the Office of Public Works with a view to preparing initial designs for the new Wexford Opera House.

To aid in this process, Wexford retained the services of Carr & Angier Theatre Consultants and Arup Acoustics to assist in the development of the building specifications. Following this, Peter Mapp Associates was appointed as the electro-acoustic consultant to design and specify a sound reinforcement solution for the building.

The newly built Wexford Opera house now contains two theatres of differing scales. The principle auditorium accommodates 780 seats, whilst a smaller adaptable auditorium can cater for 175 people for a number of performance formats.

Whilst the primary function of the building is Opera, Mapp’s brief from Carr & Angier called for the venue to be capable of being used all-year, rather than just a house for the Wexfrod Opera Festival season. A system was therefore developed in both spaces for voice and some ‘gentle music reproduction’.

The key design challenge facing Mapp was that a traditional, non-reinforced opera venue relies on the reflective nature of surfaces to provide the appropriate sound. Arup Acoustics, in consultation with Carr & Angier, therefore made material selections and acoustic treatment decisions with this in mind.

The team also worked to ensure that the room provided the same positive attributes of the old Theatre Royal. IT was kept narrow to provide the same strong lateral sound reflections that were present in the old theatre. The surfaces around the proscenium were carefully shapes to provide support as performers move upstage and, by using the analogy of the room being a musical instrument; the space was conceived as a timber box.

Arup Acoustic’s senior auditorium design engineer, Jeremy Newton said: “The room is carefully shaped to ensure the right sound reflections to the audience and performers. Where there is a need for sound scattering surfaces, these are integrated into the architectural room design. The leather seating has a perforated underside to introduce high frequency sound absorption that offsets the absorption provided by the audience making the acoustic for rehearsals as similar as possible to that for performance.”

This is in contrast to the usual challenge facing voice reinforcement systems in large venues, which often struggle with high Rt values (the new main auditorium only has a Rt value of around 1.3). The voice system was therefore required to overcome high levels of acoustic reflectivity, which problem was overcome by the use of steerable beam arrays.

The product selected by Peter Mapp Associates for the main auditorium was Renkus-Heinz’s Iconyx system. Three IC16 units were mounted on each side of the proscenium arch, with each pair dedicated to one of the three tiers of seating.

As an added complexity, the stage itself can be arranged in two modes – with or without the fore stage. This necessitates two different configurations of the sound system as Simon Cooper, project manager for installation firm Northern Light explained.

“When they’re using the full stage with the fore stage the lowest pair of IC16s is turned off and a pair of portable IC8s is rigged further downstage, using hidden bracketry within wooden panelling. It was a simple solution to fit into the fabric of the building.

“The sound itself is derived from the main production system,” continued Cooper, “an Allen & Heath GL3800 desk. The outputs from that are fed into a Biamp AudiaFLEX processor, which provides EQ and necessary delays to the system, as well as routing.”

The Biamp DSP is controlled by a Crestron solution. The main house amp rack is equipped with a Crestron CP2-E processor, which is linked with a TPS4000-L wall-mounted touch panel that provides a simple control interface in the main control room. It can be used to switch the subs (Renkus-Heinz PN212s) on or off, select whether the IC8s or 16s are in use depending on the stage configuration, and gives the ability to switch of the speaker pair dedicated to the tier 2 seating if no one is using it. DSP Pre-sets on the AudiaFLEX are automatically selected when changes are made to the system configuration using the control panel.

In addition to the main reinforcement system, a pair of JBL Control 1 Pros driven by QSC RMX850s, were installed in the side galleries.

Cooper went on: “The sound sources are anything the theatre requires, the reinforcement is coming off the main left/right mix from the A&H desk, therefore the sources can be live mics, ambient mics for show relay and close micing.” For this purpose, eight AKG CK913s were supplied. “Plus there’s a Tascam playback system and effects rack.”

The effects rack contains a Sabine GRQ3122K equaliser and a Yamaha SPX2000 as well as the Tascam mini disc player and Denon DN-C635 CD deck.

Consultant Peter Mapp commented on his choice of the Renkus-Heinz sound system: “The great benefit of the Iconyx is the steerability and controllability of the units. We tried as much as possible to compensate for the reflective surfaces needed for good opera sound, by steering the PA sound away from them, firing it directly at the seats. Another factor was their size – there is quite a small space to fit them in on the proscenium arch.

“When we turned on the system we were actually very impressed with the audio coverage and sound quality, our engineers managed to steer them and get them set up without any EQ. They felt that they sounded as good as they could be made to in the auditorium.”

The smaller, 175 seat venue received similar consideration from Arup Acoustics: “The Second Space is a multifunctional room, accommodating anything from chamber opera to lectures and dance. A variable acoustic has been achieved via a mixture of sliding acoustic panels and sound absorbing curtains at a high level,” said Newton.

The sound reinforcement solution for the second space is somewhat more modest that its bigger brother. Mapp selected JBLs EON10-G2/230 portable PA system, which is set up when required.

This is matched with a Soundcraft GB-series mixer for house sound and an identical effects / playback rack to the main auditorium.

Also specified by Carr & Ainger was a simple video monitoring system. Sony SSC-E479P cameras are used to relay pictures of the conductor to 19” LG monitor screens located on stage trolleys. The signals are switched via a Kramer VS-804XL matrix switcher, boosted by TOA C-VD6 distribution amplifiers and could also be used to feed out to public areas should the need arise.

In house communications comes from a combination of Clearcom and RTS equipment. The main house communications rack holds a Clearcom Freespeak wireless base station, which is matched with an inventory of five Freespeak out stations. In addition the house is equipped with a dozen or so RTS BP351 dual channel belt packs, and ten Sennheiser infrared receivers.

Northern Light also installed an extensive stage lighting system for both performance spaces, including some 230 ETC Source Four luminaires controlled by ETC Ion and Eos control desks. Control is via DMX over a standard Ethernet network, which is further linked to an ETC Unison house lighting control system.

The lighting suspension system also had an impact on the acoustic design of the space. To achieve an adequate room size, and the desired reverberance characteristics, the FOH lighting bridges are suspended inside the acoustic volume, rather than hidden in a ceiling.

The media information published by the Wexford Opera includes an interesting cost comparison between the three most recent opera houses in Europe, including the cost per seat in the main auditorium. Oslo tops the list at €367,647.00 per seat, Copenhagen comes in second at €239,285.00 and Wexford with a total build cost of just €33,000,000 comes in with a comparatively frugal €42,307.00. Whilst the comparisons are not quite like for like, it is none the less an impressive venue for roughly 1/7th of the cost per seat of the other sites.

The proof of the pudding however is in the tasting and the first taste of the new venue was the 57th Wexford Opera Festival, which took place from the 16th of October to the 2nd of November 2008. A review of the festival in the Observer newspaper described the venue as a “mini-Glyndebourne… with a crystal clear acoustic, spacious stage, comfortable seats and clear sight-lines throughout the house.” Job done then.