Something old and something new is perhaps the best way to describe Denver's new performing arts venue, The Ellie Caulkins Opera House, that opened in September to stellar reviews. Designed by architects from Semple Brown Design with acoustics by Robert F. Mahoney & Associates and essential contributions by theatre consultants from Fisher Dachs Associates and Theatre Consultants Collaborative, the $92 million project in Denver's arts district is home to both Colorado Ballet and Opera Colorado.
Named after Denver philanthropist and patron of the arts, Eleanor Newman Caulkins, the new 2,268-seat venue completes the cultural landscape that includes the Denver Performing Arts Complex. One of the interesting design challenges is that the venue, while totally new on the inside, was built into the existing exterior brick shell of the Quigg Newton Denver Municipal Auditorium, built in 1908, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Quigg Newton was the mayor of Denver from 1947-1955). “It was like building a ship in a bottle,” says architect Peter Lucking, principal-in-charge, Semple Brown Design.
“The design brief was for a 2,400-seat opera house within the historic shell,” notes Lucking. “We did a study and found that the 2,000-seat theatre dating from 1955 needed to be ripped out entirely.” The interior of the Quigg Newton Auditorium was subsequently gutted. Rather than opt for a classic horseshoe shape for the new auditorium, the architects chose a lyric theatre form, echoing the wider U-shape of a lyre (citing La Scala and The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden as examples).
“This shape allows us to curve the walls in toward the stage and bring the audience closer to the performers, for a better relationship with them,” adds Lucking. There are four levels of shallow balconies supported by cast iron. These echo the curve of the side walls, with no level deeper than five rows. This is a configuration that Lucking feels allows for better acoustics and better sightlines. As he puts it: “You don't see a mass of heads in front of you.” In a non-traditional design move, the architects put the boxes in the rear of the auditorium on every level, rather than stack them on the sides of the stage, to provide them with a better view. The intimate nature of the auditorium places these boxes no further than 113' from the stage.
The new auditorium is clad in warm woods, simple finishes, and red seats (Aria from KI) in continental-style configuration (no center aisle). Each balcony has immediate access to a lobby area with restrooms as well as a bar, so that patrons are never too far from these facilities. There is also a patrons' lounge in a lower lobby at basement level, where the walls are exposed stone from the building's original foundations. The auditorium itself was designed to meet the needs of several constituents, with great acoustics required for the opera and expanded lighting positions and a sprung floor for the ballet that could be covered with portable Marley flooring for performances.
The new fly tower is 110' high from stage floor to grid, while the stage itself is 55' deep by 112' wide with a 50'-wide proscenium opening. As Lucking points out, one of the unusual features of the venue is the number of dressing “stations”: over 100 to be exact, to handle all the dancers and sugar plum fairies required for annual holiday performances of The Nutcracker. This is also just one of three theatres in North America (including the Metropolitan Opera) that have the Figaro System of individual titles on the seat backs.
Theatre consultant Benjamin Boltin of Theatre Consultants Collaborative worked hand in hand with the architects and the consultants from Fisher Dachs Associates, the firm that specified the rigging, stage machinery, and lighting systems with Joe Mobilia, Richard Hoyes, and Jeff Paradise the primary consultants. “I served as a second set of eyes,” notes Boltin, who had worked on the project from the early days. “It was difficult on the program side as they had to find the right balance for opera and dance. The architects worked with the constituents for years.”
The rigging system, provided by SECOA, includes 94 single-purchase counterweight linesets with 2000-lb capacity. As Mobilia points out, there is a true 2000-lb capacity, as the 300 lbs for each pipe was figured into the equation. There are two orchestra lifts that can be used in various configurations with screw-jacks provided by Joyce/Dayton in conjunction with SECOA.
“It is an interesting system,” notes Mobilia. “There are three railings that can move with the lifts or independently depending on the configuration of the lifts and the seating wagons.” The railings are actually solid walls that move and are dressed with wooden tops to match neatly with the stage floor. Mobilia points out that these railings are a major improvement over railings that have to be moved into place each time and can be time-consuming to assemble. In this case, they move into place at the push of a button, reducing a 45-minute task to a mere five minutes. “And there is nothing to store off-stage,” Mobilia adds.
A third lift, located at the rear of the auditorium, is used to raise a mixing position for the DiGiCo Live console that is part of the cutting-edge sound system specified by Curtis Kasefang of Theatre Consultants Collaborative and installed by MediaLogix in Denver. “The system is almost bleeding-edge,” says MediaLogix project engineer Kevin Zolitor. “The goal was to create reinforcement for the opera if they need it, but to also install a versatile, high-quality sound reinforcement system for touring shows.” The DiGiCo D5 Live console, for example, can be used from at least six locations: the main mixing position, any of the balconies, and the control booth. It can even be left in a storage room and the audio engineer can run the show remotely via a laptop.
The loudspeaker package includes dV-Dosc line-arrays from L-Acoustics for the left and right cluster, with L-Acoustics ARCS for the center cluster. Fill is provided by Meyer Sound (small MM4 speakers) and EAW (UB12s), while the sub-woofers are L-Acoustics dV-Subs. All amps are from the QSC Powerlight and CX series, with the QSC Basis system for processing, connected to a CobraNet networking system. “This may be the first installation of its kind,” notes Zolitor. The end result is a highly flexible system that runs on the venue's Cat5 Ethernet network, with VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) to separate traffic along the routing.
A custom-designed AMX show control panel that plugs into the Ethernet network can be used by the stage managers as part of a video preview system that lets them see cue lights backstage and onstage, and make sure all is clear before they call a cue. A smaller sound system with a Yamaha DM2000 console, EAW loudspeakers, and QSC Basis processing is located in the lower level patrons' lobby that can be used for small performances. The large lobby spaces are a result of the large size of the existing shell. “A new venue, built from the ground up, would probably not have such large, interesting spaces,” notes Mobilia.
Additional stage machinery includes motorized rigging for the speaker clusters that can be pulled up into voids built into the shape of the ceiling. There are also motors used to move adjustable acoustic drapes that can hang over the catwalks in the audience chamber. “The acoustics are less adjustable than in a true multi-purpose hall,” points out Mobilia. “These acoustics are tuned for ballet and opera, not a symphony orchestra. This was ultimately more liberating for the architects.”
“There is an exquisite clarity for the human voice, with an appropriate balance for the orchestra in the pit,” notes Robert Mahoney, concerning the acoustics. “We want people to rediscover the joy of listening. Here, the dynamic subtleties are an important part of the experience. A great deal of attention was paid to the choice and placement of acoustic materials and lighting positions.”
The Strand Lighting system, specified by FDA's Richard Hoyes, includes eleven 96-Way Status Reporting Dimmer Racks (742 2.4kw SCR, 16 6.0kw SCR, and 74 2.4kw Sinewave circuits), one 550I Series console, one 300 Series console, 33 two-port Ethernet/DMX512 nodes, a Wi-Fi Wireless Ethernet Network with two fiber-optic Ethernet backbones, a 15" color touch panel control system and a wireless laptop with streaming console video.
“This is our second installation with Sinewave dimming, used for the auditorium lighting in this very quiet hall,” says Peter Rogers, vice president for sales and marketing at Strand. “The rest of the system features a very large DMX over Ethernet data distribution network, wireless networks for remote video and handheld remotes, and a work light/house light system that integrates lighting information as well.”
FDA developed the highly sophisticated yet easy to use house light/work light system that was engineered to use AMX touch screens and rack-mounted “consoles.” “The rack-mounted consoles sit on the lighting network and can literally be connected to moving lights, dimmers, or whatever the end user wants to operate from stage manager panels or portable touch panel stations,” adds Rogers. “Complex lighting events can be accessed at the touch of a “button” or a “fader” movement on the large color screens. In addition, the users can call up house video or console cue sheets on the same touch panels giving them instant access to information. The status reporting dimmer racks can also be accessed from the same system. The interesting part of this design is that it can be easily customized for any installation and it is fully scalable.”
Opera house or road house: how to be both? “The critical issues revolve around the seating configurations,” conjectures Boltin. “This venue has a full, opera-size orchestra pit with room acoustics designed for non-reinforced sound and a corresponding fly tower that can handle anything an opera might need. Yet there is also a road configuration with high-quality sound reinforcement via the in-house system and a large cable management system and power disconnects throughout the house. Rigging points can handle anything up to a Lion King-size tour without any difficulty. The systems were built to handle anything that might come down the pike in the next ten years.”
The response to the building has been positive, from audience and critics alike. “The transformation is really spectacular,” says Mobilia. “Anyone who saw the auditorium before would be astonished. It is now a great old shell with a great new theatre space inside.”