One might call Teatro La Fenice the unluckiest of all the great European opera houses. Built in Venice in 1792, the first version of La Fenice burned down once during construction and then was once again ravaged by flames in 1836. The replacement, that opened in 1837, had been poorly renovated over the years and was sadly in need of an overhaul. By 1995, restoration work had begun. Unfortunately, the canals around the theatre had been emptied for dredging, ironically to allow modern boats and fire-fighting barges access to backstage. In January of 1996, with no access possible on the canals, fire broke out once again and raged through the building, leaving only the original 18th-century facade standing.

La Fenice means “the phoenix” in Italian, and this jewel of an opera house has once again lived up to its name, rising magnificently from the ashes. After eight years and a 60 million Euro (almost $80 million) reconstruction process, the curtain rose once again in November 2004 with a production of La Traviata, as the first season of opera premiered in the rebuilt theatre (following an official inaugural concert last December).

Designed in true classical horseshoe shape, the red and gold main auditorium at La Fenice — the 1,076-seat Sala Opera — has five tiers of boxes in a very ornate setting, with over 16,000 sq. ft. of 24-karat gold leaf, adding luster to ceiling frescoes, gilded balconies, and shimmering chandeliers. Luckily for the Italian artists recreating the interiors, the lush opening shots of Luchino Visconti's film, Senso, were shot in the theatre in 1953 and served as a visual reference. Improvements include state-of-the-art stage machinery, including two moveable side stage sections and a moveable orchestra pit, as well as increased scenic storage and rehearsal space.

The new lighting system is by ETC. “The reopening of La Fenice is a much anticipated event for the Italian people who felt the impact of the fire like a personal loss,” says Fulvio Cotogni, ETC's manager for the southern European region. “We have been able to provide the opera house with the technology required to bring it in line with the 21st century.” This was no small feat, as the new iteration of the theatre sits on exactly the same footprint as its predecessors, with such modern necessities as Ethernet cables now embedded in the walls. Paolo Mollina served as the principal consultant, with the lighting system laid out by David Gray, field project manager for ETC Italy, who is based in Rome.

“There are three lighting systems, linked together in a central control room. This was one of the driving criteria for the job,” says Gray. The three systems include one for the main Sala Opera, one for the smaller Sala Rossi, a rehearsal room that holds the entire orchestra or can be used for chamber performances, and one for the Sale Apollinee, which is basically a rehearsal room. “The ETC network allows all three systems to be interconnected with a central WYSILINK computer to report dimming faults,” Gray notes. “It also allows the technical supervisor to set system-wide presets for the ETC Unison architectural control, if required for egress in certain conditions.”

Interestingly enough, when Gray designed the lighting systems over four years ago, he specified an ETC Emphasis console for Sala Opera and ETC Express consoles for Sala Rossi and Sale Apollinee. In the meantime, in 2002, ETC purchased transtechnik Lichtsysteme GmbH, a German lighting equipment manufacturer. “The transtechnik consoles were what the technicians at La Fenice were used to. They have used them for years,” notes Gray. The electrical contractor installed what was called for on Gray's plans, which became the de facto standard, so that the ETC consoles were delivered. But to keep the end-user happy, ETC has since exchanged the consoles with two models from transtechnik.

In Sala Opera, the Emphasis has been replaced with a Prisma NT, transtechnik's top of the line model, while in the smaller spaces, the Express consoles have been replaced with the smaller Iris NT consoles. “These have been integrated into the system. The latest Prisma NT is interfaced with the ETCNet2 network via an input node,” notes Gray. The lighting is controlled from stage right, as there is no control booth at the back of the auditorium.

The flexibility of the lighting system, with its Ethernet nodes, allows for outside lighting systems to be brought in as well. A case in point is a concert in the main auditorium last year, after the official inauguration of La Fenice, by Elton John (who has a house in Venice). His LD brought in automated luminaires by Vari-Lite, with an Artisan console. “We reconfigured outlets on the stage for DMX with a few lighting bridges on stage and some of the Sensor dimmers, and they were ready to control the touring system themselves. We left the house lights with the La Fenice technicians,” says Gray. Barges carry the lighting, as well as other necessary equipment, to the opera house.

“The systems in Sala Opera and Sala Apollinee systems are quite cool since they auto-sense when the console is connected,” Gray continues. “Sometimes these spaces are used for functions or rehearsals. When the console is not connected, it is a user-friendly system with Unison stations for fader or button playback of pre-recorded scenes. When the console is connected, the system changes control to it, locking out the wall stations, and it can be used as a traditional lighting system.”

The challenges for Gray (aside from learning Italian) included making sure the systems were ready to hand over to the technicians and fulfill their needs, making sure they knew how it all worked. After the grand reopening of La Fenice, with the new production of La Traviata (directed by Robert Carsen from Canada), Gray got positive feedback from Wilmo Fourian, technical manager at La Fenice. “He said that everything went smoothly. They controlled it with a Prisma NT (even without a backup console) and the ETC network, architectural processing, and dimmers. What a perfect example for a mix of brands.”

Gear at La Fenice

[All equipment ETC except where noted]

Sala Opera (Main Auditorium)

6 ESR48AF Sensor racks (providing 440 circuits 3K and 108 circuits 5K for production lighting)
1 ESR24AF for house lighting and main chandelier
2 SmartPack wall-mounted for house lighting in small cupboards
1 Prisma NT console by transtechnik
1 Unison LCD and key switch (for stage management control of system)
1 Unison fader station at control position

Lighting Control Rack containing:

2 Unison CMEi processors look after house lighting and production lighting snapshots for rehearsal playback
9 2-port ETCNET2 nodes for DMX distribution around stage and bridges DMX node and Ethernet distribution with power over Ethernet feeding

Sala Rossi

1 ESR24 equipment rack with:
1 Unison CMEi, custom Unison rackmount 12 fader/10 button panel, Unison keyswitch station and smaller fader control station
1 Iris NT console by transtechnik

Sale Apollinee

1 ESR48 Equipment rack with:
1 Unison CMEi, 3x custom Unison rack mount12 fade /10 button panel, Unison keyswitch station and 10 button stations
1 Iris NT console by transtechnik