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Boston Society of Architects

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Operatic maneuvers

The Boston Lyric Opera might pop up where you least expect it—and need an acoustic assist

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I've Got to Have Some of Your Attention, 2018

Photo by Thomas Hawk

When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she couldn’t possibly have imagined it as an opera staged in a gym. But this spring, the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) produced the mesmerizing work, by composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley, with a cast of more than 50 singers and 65 musicians, in Harvard University’s Lavietes Pavilion—a basketball arena.

The production was one of a series of operas that the BLO presents in nontraditional spaces as part of an effort to make opera more accessible and engaging to modern audiences, to highlight innovative artistic experiences, and to challenge the creative processes to keep opera a vital art form. Not unexpectedly, each of these spaces brings its own set of acoustical challenges for an opera performance. A team of consultants at Acentech has been supporting the BLO’s designers and musical staff, who are in charge of producing these “pop-up” shows, with suggestions and design input for acoustical success.

Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale was one such production. The staging of Atwood’s dystopian novel in the Harvard gym (the same space alluded to in the opening chapter of the book) put the main action at center court, surrounded on three sides by seats and bleachers, and on the fourth side by the orchestra (behind the singers, instead of in a pit). Acoustical issues that required some attention: balancing the orchestra and singers, solving sight-line challenges, improving on-stage communication, and focusing the projection of sound from the orchestra (without overpowering the singers). These details were addressed with the judicious placement and orientation of reflecting panels hidden in the scenery above the audience and orchestra. The Acentech team also had to figure out how to simulate the acoustic impact of an audience of 1,500 while rehearsing in an empty space (where the reverberation sounds, well, as it would in a gym!). This was accomplished by draping curtains over the seats to simulate the acoustics of an occupied room, thus allowing sound effects to be matched and balanced before the live event. David Allen in the New York Times, wrote about the performance: “The sound is better than it has any right to be. . . .”

Esther Nelson, the general and artistic director of the BLO, said that these pop-up productions allow the BLO to bring opera to neighborhoods and “not expect everyone to come to us . . . Much of where we put opera today is sort of locked into a European legacy, and that can be a handicap because it then no longer allows the art form to expand beyond what the venue offers.”

As advisers, we have tried to distill and transfer the features that are most important to this art form. First, the acoustics must reverberate appropriately, creating a rich character of sound that envelops the audience. Second, opera tells a story with speech and voice, so the acoustics must have articulation and speech clarity. Third, opera must envelop and engage the audience with a sense of immediacy. Also, the orchestra should not overpower the singers, yet its sound must be integral, well-balanced, and vibrant.

While these attributes are inherent in the traditional opera house format (horse-shoe audience configuration, multiple tiers of seats with audience close to the performers, orchestra tucked away in a pit yet part of the space—design concepts that have been honed for more than 400 years), they do not exist in the spaces used for BLO’s pop-up productions.

One such example is The Cyclorama, on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. It was constructed more than 100 years ago to house a large circular diorama from the Civil War. You could not imagine a more unlikely and inhospitable space in which to hear an opera: the reverberation time seems endless, and the curved perimeter wall and domed ceiling make for unwieldy focusing.

In studying the space, we determined how much absorption would be needed to tame the acoustics, considered the impact of the audience, evaluated options for orchestra placement to avoid overpowering the performers, and integrated these and other acoustical features into the set designs.

In the Penal Colony, by composer Philip Glass and librettist Rudy Wurlitzer, was staged in the Cyclorama. Set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat incorporated sound-absorbing panels, reflecting elements around the orchestra, and overall noise control around the perimeter of the room—all within the stark atmosphere of the imaginary penal colony. Part of the set also acted as a runway for the performers to move through at different levels.

The set model for Burke and Hare shows where the orchestra is located.

Another production staged in the Cyclorama was The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare, by composer Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell. Here, elements of the stage set itself were incorporated into the surround set for the orchestra (meant to simulate a surgical amphitheater). David Angus, musical director for the BLO, was pleased to hear how placement of the set could influence the projection and balance of the orchestra with the performers.

Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Arias & Barcarolles was staged in the DCR Steriti Memorial Rink in the North End. How could a public space, an ice rink no less, support an opera? The designer envisioned the production to be set in a nightclub, so the stage was fronted by cabaret tables and then surrounded by the audience on three sides. The orchestra was at the back of the stage like a dance band. The space was already well treated with absorptive material on the roof deck, so our challenge was to add reflecting walls as part of the set to enhance cross-room communication; this would help operagoers experience the musical envelopment from all sides of the rink, just as if they were in a nightclub.

Pop-up productions, of course, are not spontaneous, impromptu, casual occurrences. Sets, costumes, props, and rehearsals take months of preparation. For The Handmaid’s Tale, the BLO’s largest-scale production to date, a small army of installers took three days to transform the basketball pavilion into the detention center of a fascist theocracy.

Stephen Humphries, in The Christian Science Monitor, wrote: “The BLO . . . has staged productions . . . at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a synagogue, and an ice-skating rink. [These] pop-up installations have empowered it to find more creative ways to present shows, shrug off fusty traditions associated with opera, and diversify its audience,” suggesting this might be something to emulate.

“We have a pretty good idea of what attracts audiences and what you want to be for the audience of the future,” says Nelson. “It actually allows us to be ahead rather than be burdened by a legacy from the past.”