Madama Butterfly is a work with broad appeal, which made it an obvious candidate for an outreach effort by the San Francisco Opera. Out of all his operas, Madama Butterfly was composer Giacomo Puccini’s favorite work. The timeless nature of the opera could hardly have been seen at its disastrous premiere at Milan, Italy’s famed La Scala opera house in February 1904, when a complex mix of logistical, artistic, and political issues resulted in La Scala’s famously merciless crowd giving the work a raucously negative reception. But when Puccini’s reworked version reopened in Brescia a mere three and a half months later, its future popularity was clearly indicated by the seven encores and Puccini’s 10 curtain calls.
“It’s a very expensive proposition to stage an opera,” explains the opera’s master audio engineer, Max Christensen. “Ultimately, if we don’t get what we do out of the opera house and make it more accessible to a larger audience, we put live opera at risk.” Recognizing this, new San Francisco Opera general manager, David Gockley, is championing free performances by the opera in the city’s parks, and recently created “Opera Vision,” a program to simulcast live performances from the War Memorial Opera House. The performance is transmitted to an outdoor location where the public watches a six-camera video shoot projected on a large-format screen and hears the music on a top-quality system of Meyer Sound self-powered loudspeakers.
The first simulcast was for Madama Butterfly’s opening night, which was also the opening of the opera’s 2006 season. Madama Butterfly’s premiere was watched by approximately 8,000 people filling San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, across the street from the opera house.
Modern opera production employs a surprising amount of technical infrastructure, but this event went beyond even that norm, requiring more than two dozen crew members for the simulcast alone, with Christensen and opera audio department key, Doug Mitchell, anchoring the audio operation at the opera house. The video was captured by three manned cameras, one robotic camera, and two fixed “point of view” cameras — the outputs of which were fed to the opera’s percussion room in the basement, designated as “Video Village,” where director Bruce Bryant called the cuts on eight of the room’s 55 monitors.
From there, the video was fed to a microwave uplink transmitting a digital stream and a backup analog stream from the roof of the opera house. The microwave signal was then bounced off of a nearby skyscraper and received by an antenna mounted on the back of the truck pulling the trailer on which the 18-foot, 7-inch by 25-foot LED screen was mounted. This was only the second time an LED screen was used in the US for an opera simulcast.
The audio production seemed simple by comparison. The opera itself was picked up by only three microphones — John Meyer’s modified Neumann USM 69 stereo condensor and two DPA 4023 compact cardioid condensors. “With respect to mic’ing technique, I’m of the view that less is more,” Christensen comments. The USM 69 was suspended over the stage, while the DPAs were deployed as “foot” mics. Meyer’s USM 69 has been modified to provide two bi-directional (figure-eight) patterns, as opposed to the traditional MS stereo combination of one cardioid and one bidirectional pattern. The mic fed a custom MS decoding matrix designed and built by Meyer.
Over at Civic Center Plaza, PM/US project manager David Bowers presided over a system built around two arrays of eight MILO® high-power curvilinear array loudspeakers each, hung from giant cranes on either side of the LED screen. “The goal we had was to get sound all the way to the east side of the plaza, adjacent to Fulton Street, which is more than 600 feet away,” Bowers says. “The opera had expected 3,000 to 5,000 people to attend, and they got considerably more than that, so we had our hands full making sure it could be heard everywhere.”
The arrays were hung from giant cranes, on booms, to get them as close as possible to the screen, in order to maximize the feeling that the sound was coming from the onscreen action and not from a sound system.
Four 700-HP ultrahigh-power subwoofers were groundstacked on either side of the stage to provide low-end support for the orchestra, with each stack topped by a pair of legacy, unpowered MSL-2A reinforcement loudspeakers for sidefill.
At the FOH position, mixer Roni Jules’s Yamaha DM2000 console was fed by the four microphone channels from the digital microwave stream, the same four channels as safeties from the analog stream, and four channels of audio from the truck for playback of prerecorded promotional material before the performance and during intermission. Drawing on his years of experience mixing in the opera house, Jules attempted to make the MILO system emulate the sound and feel of the opera house for the Civic Center audience.
The self-powered system made it possible for Bowers, Jules, and PM/US systems engineer Mike Brady to have the system up and running by 3pm the day before the simulcast. Impressive, given that setup included everything from running snakes, connecting generators, and dealing with the logistics of working in the middle of downtown San Francisco.
The weather was relatively balmy and still, unlike a typical spring evening in San Francisco, which is usually cool and foggy. Even the fact that the arrays were 12 feet behind the microphones was not a problem. According to Bowers, this was accomplished largely through the tight pickup pattern of the Neumann KM22 capsules that were fitted onto Sennheiser 5000 series wireless transmitters for the onstage talent’s use.
In the end, the simulcast came off with scarcely a hitch and was enjoyed by more than just the audience in the plaza. “There were people parked on Fulton Street with their driver’s windows down, just watching and listening,” Bowers recalls. Opera staff members, too, were pleased by the result. “MILO worked just fabulously, everybody was very happy with it,” he reports. “There were some people in the opera organization that had not heard MILO before and they were very impressed. The San Francisco Opera could not have wished for a better outcome or a better review from the San Francisco Chronicle, and I want to thank them for involving us in such a great event.”
Christensen feels that Madama Butterfly was an important event in the opera’s quest to engage a wider spectrum of people. “The simulcast was the first step in building a new audience,” he says. “Opera is a great art form that simply not enough people have been exposed to, or, more importantly, have access to. It can take 3,200 people and bring them to tears in a downbeat. Our challenge is to make that number 32,000, if not more, given the digital distribution opportunities emerging.”