The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden Is Up and Running With Sophisticated New Systems

As historic opera houses go, the Royal Opera House has had quite a history. It is sometimes referred to simply as Covent Garden, as it sits in the historic London neighborhood of the same name; the very neighborhood where wholesale flower markets once bloomed abundantly. Today, the markets have been replaced with numerous chic boutiques and restaurants, and the Covent Garden area is one of the most popular tourist destinations in town. Even the rather upscale Royal Opera House took advantage of this popularity by adding a row of shops under arcades that face the market, adding not only a source of funding for the project, but also an anchor to its surroundings.

Revenue was a subject of great interest as the costs of the Royal Opera House renovation continued to climb. The entire undertaking was referred to as elitist by certain politicians as controversy about the project swirled in the press. Of course a budget of over £200 million ($360 million US) is nothing to be sneezed at (England's National Lottery monies helped with the funding). Once it is all running smoothly, the ROH will be one of today's most technically advanced opera houses.

And that of course was one of the main goals of a project that took almost three years to complete. In fact the ROH closed in the summer of 1997 and reopened on December 1, 1999, with a royal performance for the Queen. Technical tweaking continued through the summer of 2000, to harness all of the sophisticated backstage machinery that is now in place.

Home of the Royal Opera and now the Royal Ballet, and host to touring companies such as the Kirov Ballet and Opera companies, the Royal Opera house is the latest update of the one that was built in 1858 on a 2.5—acre parcel of land (after fires destroyed the first two theatres built in 1785 and 1842 on this site). Architects Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones of London's architectural firm of Dixon Jones BDP were the principal architects for this current rebuild, with Tim Leach and Anne Minors as project architects.

The current complex is actually five separate buildings: a combination of the old opera house whose historic E.M. Barry facade has landmark status; the adjacent Floral Hall; a new wing which houses the new box office on the ground floor, and administrative offices and workshops upstairs; the side stage area also containing wardrobe and dressing rooms; and the 1988 Phase One building, which in part houses the Royal Ballet.

The classic 2,200—seat auditorium is the centerpiece of the house. The sightlines in its sweeping horseshoe shape were improved during the recent restoration, with a re-raking of the orchestra level, new angles for the side boxes, and additional seating in the upper levels. All seats in the auditorium were supplied by Quinette Gallay of Montreuil, France. There are 531 seats in the stalls, 299 in the stalls circle, 221 in the grand tier, 226 in the balcony tier, and 906 in the amphitheatre. The house has space for 18 wheelchairs and 54 standing places.

Gerriets in France made the house curtain, while England's Royal College of Needlework created the royal crest that forms the top of the proscenium arch. A false proscenium, manufactured by Telestage of Bury-St-Edmunds in England, alters the masking and sightlines as required. Normal playing height is 25' and the normal width is 36'. These sizes can be increased to a maximum height of 39' and a maximum width of 49'. The stage measures 23m deep by 32m wide, wall-to-wall.

The auditorium's gilded decor runs from the deep red plush of the seats to the delicate robin's egg or Wedgwood blue, gold, and white domed ceiling. The painting and gilding was done by the UK firm of Hare and Humphries, which specializes in the restoration of Grade 1—listed buildings. The dome is cleverly lit with 75W MR16 Microspot zooms, shining through new holes in its perimeter.

The dome also contains stage lighting positions, which are easily accessible as technicians can simply walk up to the individual instruments. Five panels, or shutters, at the back of the dome lower and reveal stage lighting and followspot positions. The end windows (numbers one & five) contain three ETC Source Four 10° fixtures with Rainbow scrollers. The middle window (number three) contains six additional ETC Source Four 10° fixtures, also with Rainbow scrollers, plus a 19° conductor's special. The two outer middle windows (numbers two & four) each contain two Limelight 2kW xenon followspots provided by Lighting Technology Ltd. in London.

In the very center of the dome, in the position originally occupied by the chimney of the 1858 gas chandelier, are eight ETC Source Four 10° fixtures with Rainbow scrollers, and as they are packed closely into small spaces, their focus is essentially fixed. All of the lighting instruments in the dome are installed behind acoustic windows so as not to disturb the audience with technicians' conversations or noise from scroller fans. These areas are an enlarged version of the system installed by Martin Carr (now of the UK firm Carr & Angier located in Bath) in 1964. The dome also conceals the huge ducts for the silent new air-cooling system in the auditorium (the noisy cooling plant is in another building).

The new stage lighting system was one of the major priorities of the renovation project. "The goal was to provide enough flexibility for the range of productions that take place here," explains Mark White, who served as theatre consultant for the ROH renovation. "The last major update to the lighting was by Paul Weston of Strand in 1964," he points out.

"Getting English Heritage to agree to our requirements for modern lighting positions turned into an exercise in diplomacy," White adds. "Their view, with which we had some sympathy, was that the audience should walk into the room and see essentially the same things that audiences saw in 1858. Consequently the number of lighting positions are limited, although we ended up with more side positions than when the house closed and legitimized the use of the upper amphitheatre slips as box booms.

"It was recognized from the start that we could not hang lanterns on the fronts of the balcony tiers. We had to hang the instruments tucked up as tight as possible to the soffit underneath each seating level, but this gave rise to two problems. The first was sightlines, particularly as Anne Minors had raised the seating in order to improve the view from the rear rows, and the second was the proximity of the lanterns to the audience both in terms of them being able to touch them if they stretched hard and also the possibility of radiant heat being a nuisance on their faces," White continues. "Not only were we limited in the size of the instruments, but also in the acoustic performance, firstly in terms of the filament rattle and then in the thermal cycle noises, the ticking noises like a central heating radiator makes," Fortunately the Source Four instruments initially, and then sometime later, the Strand SL, both passed muster with the acousticians."

The new system in the main house includes an ETC Obsession II console with 4,608 channels (2,048 for conventional fixtures and house lights and the rest for moving lights and color scrollers; there is also a second Obsession II console in the 396—seat Linbury Studio Theatre). ETC Sensor dimmers are also installed in both theatres. The main house has 1,348 dimmers, located in two dimmer rooms, one in the roof above the auditorium and the other nine floors below, underneath the stage for the stage-area circuits. Five-hundred-and-sixty-four non-dim circuits are also provided via DMX-controlled contractors. The Linbury Studio Theatre has 414 dimmers plus 60 non-dims located in the scene dock.

All lighting in the auditorium (except the safety lights, such as exit signs) is controlled by the ETC-NET network installed by ETC Europe Ltd. Integrated with it is an ETC Unison architectural control system which controls the worklights on stage plus the house lights. David Gray served as ETC's project manager, with Michael Lichter as ETC's installation manager. "The fixed equipment occupies DMX universes one through four, and universes five through nine are distributed via Gray Interfaces opto-isolated amplifiers to feed the moving lights," White explains.

The lighting fixture inventory includes a range of conventional fixtures provided by Lighting Technology, which reports that the £470,000 ($734,000) of equipment is the largest lighting order of its kind ever placed in the UK. The more than 1,700 instruments provided by Lighting Technology include fixtures from ETC, Strand Lighting, Robert Juliat, James Thomas, CCT Lighting, and ADB, as well as items from Rainbow (color scrollers), Smoke Factory, Doughty Engineering, Rope Assemblies, and SES.

Moving lights proved a little more complicated. Arup Acoustics, the acoustician for the project, did not approve of any fixtures with fans, as they were considered too noisy. Instead, the ROH team came up with some automated alternatives, including a truly European combination of 15 French Robert Juliat 2.5kW PCs with German yokes by LichtTechnik and the all-American entry of 30 ETC Source Fours coupled with AutoYokes from City Theatrical. These were provided by White Light in London, and installed and maintained by The Moving Light Company, White Light's specialized automated lighting division.

"The ROH has placed an order for a further 40 Source Four AutoYokes fitted with indexable gobo rotators, and has taken delivery of 10 High End Systems Studio Spots from Lightfactor Sales Ltd.," notes White. "These do not have fans, and although originally considered as incompatible with a tungsten rig, improvements made them acceptable."

Nine additional LichtTechnik Yokes are paired with Arri Junior 5kW fresnels fitted with custom dichroic reflectors with Rainbow 12" scrollers to "further enhance the automated overhead lighting rig, reducing changeover times and offering designers further flexibility for the 2000-2001 season," says Dave Harvey, lighting manager for opera productions at the ROH. Seven Wybron CXI color changers are used for a fixed-focus ballet front wash in front-of-house Source Fours.

Another automated fixture, Le Fantôme, is being developed expressly for the ROH by Wynne Willson Gottelier in the UK, combining Robert Juliat 2.5kW HMI zoom profile spots with custom 360° x 360° rotating heads. "It's quiet and it saves a lot of space," says Tony Gottelier of WWG, who adds that Le Fantôme is also equipped with automated zoom and focus, remote framing, automated iris, and a built-in color scroller. This unit will be manufactured by Juliat and distributed by Decoupe in the UK, making its public debut at the PLASA trade show in London this month.

AC Lighting Ltd. in London supplied the ROH lighting department with one WYSIWYG 2000 and six WYSIWYG 500 systems from Cast Lighting in Toronto, so that they can now use WYSIPAPER, WYSICAD, and WYSIWYG collectively as visualization and paperwork software, with rendering for up to 2,000 DMX channels. Mike Falconer of AC Lighting worked with Harvey and other members of the lighting staff, including Nick Reid, head of lighting control, on the system setup.

"There is a rep plot and we try to keep them to it," says Harvey, referring to the outside lighting designers that work in the house. "They get a designer's pack with ground plans, lighting plans, and tech specs." The lighting managers' office (in addition to Harvey, the other lighting manager is John Charlton) is the first contact the designers have in the production process; they then work with a production team made up of seven crew members who remain with the show throughout (the ROH has four such teams that are assigned on a rotating basis to each production in the house. There are also two daily running crews of 28 multi-skilled stagehands that work one day on, one day off. The new lighting booth is located at the back of the stalls, or orchestra level, with a direct view of the stage.

Another major area of concern was the updating of the stage machinery and rigging. "The goal was to make the shows and rehearsals go on more easily," says White. "The stagehands just couldn't keep moving things around the way they did in the old days." In fact, some of the machinery, rigging, and elevators that were just replaced dated from the turn of the 20th century. "They were still working," says White, "but they couldn't lift heavy weights and it was all manually operated. The new stage machinery enables you to get a piece of scenery into exactly the right place in the shortest amount of time."

To do this, a series of 27 rolling stage wagons (each 48' x 16') with 43 elevators, manufactured and installed by the UK firms of Rolls Royce Engineering and Clarke Chapman Engineering respectively, are now in place. These make it possible for a set to be built in the set assembly area and transported to a rehearsal room, onto the stage, or into the side stage storage areas. Each wagon can potentially move up to 16 tons of scenery. The control system for the wagons was built by Bat-Alpha (Bobach) of Langenfeld, Germany.

Twenty-one of the wagons are used for opera productions and therefore have standard solid wood floors, each with 26 traps; the other six have sprung floors designed for ballet (and only one has traps). The sprung ballet floor was custom built for the ROH by Swift Horsman in the UK. "Jeffrey Phillips (ROH technical project manager) tried various "rates" of floors with the Royal Ballet dancers," explains White. "They selected the combination of timber and neoprene suspension they liked best."

"The wagons can move as directed by a cunning system using toothed belts designed by internationally-known UK mechanical designer Mike Barnett," explains White. Remaining at stage level the wagons can move into the side stage, rear stage, set assembly area, or opera rehearsal room. They move like pieces in an interlocking puzzle; compensating elevators sink to allow the passage of up to three linked wagons, then rise back to stage level when the wagons have cleared. An open height of 36' allows scenery to move from space to space on the wagons. Massive fire- and soundproof doors, weighing as much as 58 tonnes approximately 63.8 US tons) separate the spaces as needed.

The new automated rigging in the main house was manufactured by Krupp IndustrieTechnik in Germany and installed by Statec, the German firm that has taken over Krupp's stage machinery company. Unusual Rigging in the UK was also involved in a portion of the onsite installation. The system includes: 108 cross-stage automated bars of Unitruss from James Thomas Engineering and Triple E that are 78' long and can handle one ton of scenery each; 18 lighting battens; six up and down stage linesets; and 30 point hoists for up to 1/2 ton each. The electric-powered Krupp winches sit nine levels above the stage.

Stage Technologies Ltd. in the UK provided the automated control with its Nomad motion control system and 10 portable control consoles. "There are 36 points you can plug the controls into," White notes. "You can take it where you're going to use it. That's what's so good about the Nomad, you can take it to where the operators can see what they are doing." Stations are located at stage level as well as in the new flytower, which is layered with lighting and rigging galleries up to the grid that sits 120' above the stage.

This new height allows complete shows to be flown up to grid level, while the current show occupies the stage and intermediate levels. The flytower is outfitted with a mobile cloth gantry (provided by Street Crane Express of Sheffield, England), or rolling platform that is stored in the rear stage, and has a cherrypicker attached to it, allowing work to be done at various levels in the air.

It may seem odd, but scenery storage for the ROH is in Wales, 160 miles away, the practicality being that it is less expensive to drive it back and forth, than rent the massive amount of storage space that would be required in London. The loading dock is in the new section of the building along Bow Street, and the scenery pallets (the size of ocean-going containers) that come into the building in semi-trailers are carried on the trailer three floors down to a large storage center that holds up to 28 pallets. Here they are unloaded by the driver. "These can be moved back up to the stage level set-building area as needed by stage technicians using the get-in lift and a system of pallet dollies and battery-driven tugs," explains White.

Nine separate elevators in the orchestra pit allow versatile configurations: two large elevators at the front of the pit allow access to the store room located underneath the stalls; three double-deck elevators in the middle of the pit can be raised to form a forestage extension; two double-deck elevators at the sides normally have audience seating at the upper level and players underneath, but can be lowered to normal pit level to provide an enlarged pit for opera by Wagner or Strauss and other productions requiring a larger-than-normal orchestra. All of the platforms move by means of four Gala Spiralifts each. The conductor elevator and the prompt box elevator are hydraulically powered. The orchestra elevators were installed by BBB in Weiden, Germany.

There are six double-deck stage elevators, each measuring 48' by 8' (and just under 9' high), which can sink either 14' numbers one through four) or 20' below stage (numbers five and six). They can all rise to 9' above stage level at a maximum speed of 2'/second carrying 15 tonnes. Six powered trap lifts can be wheeled into place in any of 78 positions. The elevators were built by SBS in Dresden, Germany.

Arup Acoustics, a division of Ove Arup and Partners in London, served as acoustician for the Royal Opera House renovation. Their principal goal was to make sure that the positive qualities of the existing acoustics in the auditorium were retained. These include high vocal quality and an even pit/stage balance, so that the musicians and singers do not overpower each other.

Since this is a historic "preserved" auditorium, the extent of the acoustic work was limited, but in some areas where sightlines were improved, the "soundlines" were as well, by removing carpet and sound-absorbing panels to increase reverb and warmth. Metal panels with plywood reflective backs and perforated metal covering acoustic-absorbent material in the orchestra pit can be adjusted manually to reflect or absorb sound as desired.

Arup also worked on the reduction of background noise (aided by the new, quieter lighting and rigging systems), as well as the new air-conditioning system (a welcome relief for ROH patrons). This is a similar system to the one Arup devised for the Glyndebourne Opera House, with air coming in under the seats and extracted through the ceiling.

"Our main challenge was sound isolation around the building. There is a lot of activity taking place all over a small site in the middle of London. The goal is to keep unwanted noises out, and keep the sounds in the rooms as they should be," notes Jeremy Newton, Arup's project manager for the ROH. "The large scene dock doors help with the necessary high-level sound isolation."

Acoustic isolation of the Linbury Studio Theatre, which is located below street level and under one of the opera rehearsal rooms, was one of Arup's main challenges. "The room sits as a box in a box and sits on rubber pads isolating it from the ground and the rest of the building," Newton explains. "The studio theatre also has a limited variable acoustic system with panels than can fly in and towers than can move as needed."

While there is limited sound reinforcement in most productions at the ROH, the sound system is used for playback of sound effects, or any recorded music that might be required, as well as amplification of off-stage singers. "Most modern opera written since 1950 was written with some amplification in mind," says Eric Pressley, head of sound for ROH. "Also, when 19th-century operas were written, the scenery was a wooden frame with canvas and off-stage voices could be heard. Today we have to amplify anything sung off-stage, as the sound can't get through the solid scenery. And weather. There is a lot of thunder in opera."

The new elements in the sound system, many of which are custom-designed for the Opera House, were installed by Cranford Audio in the UK. Loudspeakers include 20 XTA DP200 loudspeakers in the main auditorium, 50 Ethos Acoustics custom-designed, under-balcony loudspeakers, 30 ATC SCM20 self-powered monitors for rehearsal room playback and in the Linbury Studio Theatre, and custom speakers with ATC mid-range components, Volt low-frequency components, and a variety of high-frequency units. These are built into the front of the stage.

"We needed high quality, high output in a very small space," explains Pressley, in regard to the custom units. He also wanted all of the sound to come from the stage, and since the proscenium arch and false proscenium can move, there were very few permanent positions available. There is no central cluster above the stage, as Pressley favors sound that comes from the pit, the stage, or surround speakers.

Additional equipment includes 200 Chord Electronics 280W mono amplifiers (split between two amp rooms that feed all of the speakers: one above the auditorium ceiling over the orchestra pit; the other in the basement). The Calrec Q-series mixing console is generally used in a front-of-house position in one of the side boxes (its alternate position in a balcony requires the loss of revenue-producing seats).

One of the most interesting architectural features of the Royal Opera House is the ornate white iron and glass Floral Hall, with its Crystal Palace roof line that has been integrated into the new Bow Street facade. This structure was built in 1859 as part of Covent Garden's fruit and vegetable market. When the market moved away from the area, the Opera House used it as storage space. Old elements have been forged with new ones where needed, and Floral Hall has been restored with lobby areas on the ground floor and a beautiful public space upstairs under the barrel-vaulted roof. Bar service and some chairs and tables for snacks make this the place to be during intermission.

The Opera House is now up and running, with an ambitious schedule of opera and ballet that puts its technical capabilities to the test on a daily basis. The controversy has subsided (the English press has other fish to fry these days) and it's on with the show at Covent Garden, where the elegance of a 19th-century theatre has been married to the kind of state-of-the-art technology that will define opera house design throughout the next hundred years.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Technical staff
John Seekings, operations director
John Harrison, commercial director (former technical director)
Mark White, theatre consultant
Jeffrey Phillips, project manager
Geoff Wheel, head of technical
Dave Harvey, lighting manager
John Charlton, lighting manager
Eric Pressley, head of sound
Nick Reid, head of lighting control

Dixon Jones BDP
Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, principal architects
Tim Leach and Anne Minors, project architects

Arup Acoustics, Ove Arup Partners
Rob Harris, project director
Jeremy Newton, project manager

Krupp IndustrieTechnik/Statec winches and rigging
Unitruss: James Thomas Engineering and Triple E
Nomad Control System: Stage Technologies Ltd.

Stage wagons
Rolls Royce Engineering and Clarke Chapman Engineering
Control system: Bat-Alpha

Lighting suppliers
AC Lighting (WYSIWYG), Lighting Technologies (conventional fixtures),
White Light/The Moving Light Company (automated fixtures), Lightfactor Sales
(High End Systems Studio Spots), Wynne Willson Gottelier (Le Fantôme)

Selected lighting equipment

Audio installation
Cranford Audio

Selected sound equipment
(20) XTA DP200 loudspeakers in main auditorium
(50) Ethos Acoustics custom-designed under-balcony loudspeakers
(30) ATC SCM20 self-powered monitors for rehearsal room playback and in the Linbury Studio Theatre
(1) Calrec Q-series mixing console
(200) Chord Electronics 280W mono amplifiers