Australia has the opera house in Sydney. Spain has the Guggenheim in Bilbao. And now Singapore has Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, a striking new performing arts center whose contemporary architecture makes it a must-see destination. Designed by DP Architects in Singapore and the UK firm of Michael Wilford and Partners, the new complex opened in October 2002, housing both a 2,000-seat theatre and 1,600-seat concert hall (with an extra 200 seats in the choir loft), as well as a recital room, drama studio, and several outdoor performance spaces on the waterfront along Marina Bay. Theatre Projects Consultants in London served as theatre consultants for this impressive project, with Artec Consultants in New York as acousticians.
The shape of the complex is unusual, with two circular glass-enclosed structures that are organized around a central courtyard. The double-skin exterior cladding is a variation of the local building style using layers of timber and banana leaves. In this case, the outer skin has projecting “fish scale” sunscreens that help reflect some of the intense tropical heat in Singapore. The spiky, rounded shapes are now referred to locally as the “durians,” referring to two halves of a Southeast Asian fruit with a thorny rind but pleasant taste.
One of the biggest challenges for the acousticians and theatre consultants was the East-meets-West nature of the project. “The programming is multicultural,” explains Larry King, senior acoustician at Artec. “From the early stages of the project it was paramount to understand that there would be a wide mix of performers, including Indian, Chinese, and Malay, as well as Western symphonic orchestras.”
Russell Johnson, Artec's esteemed chairman, notes that many interviewers have asked him how does one design a room for everything from antique Chinese instruments to antique European instruments to current-day Western symphonic orchestras. “That is the wrong question,” he replies. “You want to design the acoustics of every hall to accurately transmit the sounds being produced from the stage platform to the ears of the listeners without modification, distortion, or improvement. The hall should not impose itself on the music. So the wide range of programming is ultimately not a problem.”
In reality, this means that the Esplanade concert hall has highly flexible acoustics to meet the needs of the many constituents that will perform there. “We had a three-month trial period, from mid-July through mid-September,” says King. “We brought in multiple groups of every kind, including a Balinese orchestra where some of the instruments are very loud and others are almost inaudible and all of the musicians sit on the floor. We worked to establish a sound in the room comparable to the sound in the traditional venues where they play in Indonesia, with flat floors and thatched roofs.”
The key to the adjustable acoustics in the concert hall is a series of three independently variable canopies over the stage platform. The central canopy is a circle, flanked at the rear by two semicircular canopies. Additional acoustic treatment includes reverberation chambers, with a total of 84 doors, and a series of curtains and banners for sound absorption. When the chamber doors are open, the large Klais pipe organ in the hall resonates with a large, cathedral-like sound.
The design of the acoustic canopies and doors was conceived by Artec, engineered by Theatre Projects, fabricated and installed by Mitsubishi in Japan, with controls by Bytecraft in Australia. The center cluster of loudspeakers can lower through sliding doors in the central canopy.
Lighting positions in the concert hall are primarily on a series of curved trusses (also by Mitsubishi) hanging below and between the acoustic canopies. Concert lighting, production lighting, and moving lights are all hung on these trusses, with limited positions in the front-of-house, including along balcony fronts. “A particular concern was the noise of the lighting system,” says David Staples, of Theatre Projects Consultants. “Russell Johnson wants everything to be as quiet as humanly possible, so there is as quiet lighting as possible.” The lighting booth is located at the rear of the orchestra level.
Theatre Projects' London office began work on this project as early as 1990 (Artec joined them in 1992), with both Staples and Alan Russell working with the client and architect on the shape of the room. “We wanted the sightlines to be good for everything from a small chamber ensemble to a full-scale symphony with a choir of 200 people,” says Staples. In fact, the concert hall opened with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, “using the space to its fullest,” notes Staples.
Architect Michael Wilford gave the interior of the concert hall an Asian flavor, with wooden struts (or ribs, like the hull of a boat) in warm wood tones. “The Singapore government wanted the room to look as if it belonged in Asia,” explains King. Another Asian touch is the green Thai silk stretched over plaster GFRG (glass fiber reinforced gypsum) tiles embedded in the masonry walls and balcony fronts. The seats are upholstered in a fireproofed green fabric with a coarser weave, while the floors are a wood veneer bonded to the concrete. The local architects chose the final materials and colors for the interior decor.
The consultants at Theatre Projects also confronted the East-West yin and yang of the project, confronting such issues as the lack of tradition for indoor performances in certain parts of Asia, which resulted in the two outdoor venues at the Esplanade (despite the torrid heat and humidity). Another difference is the unique quality of Chinese opera and Indian dance, where the musicians are onstage with the performers rather than in an orchestra pit.
As a result, Theatre Projects designed the Esplanade theatre stage to work well for a variety of events with a fully adjustable proscenium arch, two full-sized ancillary stages (rear and side), a 30m-tall (98') fly tower, and an adjustable orchestra pit for up to 95 musicians. “The proscenium opening is wider than in a Western theatre, and can open up to 80' (24m) to accommodate Chinese opera as they want it to be,” says Staples.
When the proscenium arch is opened, the lighting positions move farther offstage into the wings. “The system is entirely flexible and lighting instruments can hang on any pipe in the fly tower,” says Staples, who notes that the motorized rigging is by Mitsubishi, with controls by Bytecraft. These controls also handle the firedoors into the rear and side stage, all under-stage elevators and equipment, and a large wagon with a ballet floor (18×15m, or 59'×39'), the same size as the main stage elevator.
“The ballet wagon can be lowered and stored in a pocket under the rear stage,” Staples explains. “This is something we are very proud of, as we provided a dance floor in one piece with no seams. The dancers will not encounter any gaps or variations in resilience. If you jump, the floor feels the same wherever you come down.”
A modern interpretation of the traditional horseshoe-shaped design of a European opera house, the theatre is wider to accommodate the Asian performing arts. “This is based on a shape that works well for many kinds of performances,” says Staples. Clad in warm wood with red seats and silk fabric treatment, the decor is also a nod to Asian design, yet without as much detail as in the concert hall. “There is a different feel to each room,” notes King.
The theatre also has a different acoustic treatment. “The concert hall was designed primarily for non-amplified music,” says Johnson. In contrast, the theatre will be used for productions with a tremendous amount of amplification, such as Broadway or West End musicals (they have already presented Singin' in the Rain). While the room has a fixed ceiling, there are acoustic options including banners that travel down through slots in one of the side boxes and along the side walls, adding absorption to the plaster surfaces.
Active acoustic surfaces are located behind the boxes and side walls that step back like a reverse fan shape. This shape helps reflect the sound across the room and give it a sense of expansiveness. The seats are also as close to the stage as possible to make the room seem intimate in spite of its size (while it is larger than the opera house it has a lower ceiling, decreasing the volume). Carpet in the aisles also helps absorb sound energy, as do patterned squares of plaster along the curved balcony fronts. The left and right loudspeaker clusters retract into the ceiling when not needed.
The sound equipment package in both the concert hall and the theatre includes a Cadac J-type console, as well as a Spirit 324 Live digital performance mixer, a Spirit 328 digital recording mixer, an Allen & Heath DP1000 digital mixer, and a Yamaha 01V digital mixer. Processing is via BSS 9088MM audio matrix systems, with effects equipment by Aphex, BSS, Yamaha, and Lexicon, loudspeakers by Meyer (in the theatre), d&b (in the concert hall), Tannoy, Martin Audio, and Genelec, with amps by d&b and Crown.
Lighting systems include Strand Lighting 550i consoles in both the concert hall and theatre, Strand's Shownet software with Ethernet and DMX networks and nodes, and Strand SLD dimmers. Fixtures include Strand Alto, Orion, Coda, and Pirouette units, ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, James Thomas PAR cans, High End Systems Studio Spots®, Studio Colors®, and x.Spots™, DHA Digital Light Curtains, Robert Juliat Cyrano followspots, Selecon Pacific profiles, Martin Professional strobes, Rainbow color scrollers, Lighting Innovations motorized yokes, L&E Mini-Strips, and lighting towers by Northern Light. There are also two WYSIWYG Perform software packages, each with 5,000 channels.
“One of the keynotes in both rooms is the feeling of intimacy,” says Staples. “This was especially important in the theatre. We wanted it to feel like the smallest 2,000-seat theatre there is, with good sightlines and acoustics, and be comfortable and easy to use for the public. Singapore is a very affluent society with high standards of design and customer care. The Esplanade is seeking to offer the same quality of service and experience in terms of theatre-going.”