The 2015 season of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH in short) saw a larger-than-life production of Verdi’s Aida come alive against the spectacular backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The bold, innovative production pushed the boundaries of logistics, technology and staging to give its audience a unique opera-going experience. An 18 metre tall revolving statue of Nefertiti, live camels and fireworks are just some of the elements that set HOSH apart from anything remotely possible in a traditional venue.
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s huge scale and outdoor setting present unique challenges to production, not least of which is the almost impossible task of replicating the qualities of an indoor, opera house experience out in the elements. Norwest Productions has been involved with HOSH from its first year, and we have consistently delivered clear and transparent amplification in a difficult environment. Not content with resting on our laurels, Norwest has continuously analysed and improved our techniques for amplifying HOSH from year to year. In conjunction with sound designer Tony David Cray, the 2015 season saw us add a ground-breaking 188 speaker surround-sound system that simulates the acoustic response of a concert hall, bringing a more authentic listening experience to an art form that was never intended to be amplified. “The nature of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour speaks to the DNA of Norwest,” said Norwests’ General Manager, Graeme Whitehouse. “We thrive on challenging jobs in unusual places. We’ve been involved with Opera Australia for many years. Their current artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, is bold, innovative and pushes boundaries, which are values that we share. What we love about this kind of project is not necessarily the scale or complexity, but the fact that there is something unusual, different and challenging. If your project has a unique or challenging element, we’re the people you should call. Nothing scares us!”
Aida is famous for its huge cast, big orchestral moments and elaborate staging. Getting such an epic show right requires detailed pre-production. “We did a week of technical rehearsals in which we mic’d up all the performers and the orchestra,” explained Adrian Riddell, Special Projects Manager and FOH Systems Engineer for Norwest. “On this production, we ran 56 channels of radio microphones, 16 on the principals including back-up, and everyone was wearing in-ear monitors. Sound designer and audio operator Tony David Cray spent that week programming the audio desks with what became 824 separate cues. While he was doing that, myself and the rest of the team came on-site and put the PA in. After rehearsals finished, the audio desks and control equipment came in, and we were rehearsing again in a day-and-a-half.”
Tony David Cray has also been involved with Opera on Sydney Harbour since its first season in 2012, and has worked hand-in-hand with Norwest to improve the sound for each production. “Amplification in the opera world never happens, and it’s arguably impure compared to the natural voice and natural orchestra, but outside, it’s a necessity,” he said. “Opera Australia talked to me about what we could do. I had been mixing the films of their productions, and I was interested in the idea of taking the film mixing process and doing it live, trying to get that level of fit, finish and production to opera outside.” This is where the time and effort spent in pre-production paid off. All of Aida’s 824 audio cues, which is a staggering amount for any kind of production, are intended to keep anything out of the PA that detracts from the music. During the show, an assistant conductor from Opera Australia sat next to Tony as he mixed the show, reading along with an orchestral score. Any amount of silence or inactivity on any microphone is marked as a cue in the score, and the volume of those microphones turned down automatically, or back up again as required, at the touch of a button. “This way, I’m able to clean and nip and tuck all of the mess out of the mix,” Tony explained. “We’ve learnt that the moment the woodwind section finish a phrase and are getting ready for the next one, they’ll clean their instruments, so we’ve taken a lot of time to clean that out, as you would do in post-production for a film. There are huge sections in the score that are cue after cue after cue of just pulling things in and out.” The result is a clean, natural sounding mix that closely emulates the listening experience of an acoustic production. The most satisfying innovation for the 2015 season has been the huge success of the surround sound system; 188 speakers under the seating that simulate the acoustic behaviour of walls and a ceiling, creating a much more realistic listening experience. “It came out of a discussion I had with Norwest last year,” Tony continued. “How do we build a false roof to envelop people? We were saying how the seating can be annoying because you can hear the performers underneath warming up, which we then realised was because they were acoustically transparent. So we came up with some concepts and models, and Adrian Riddell and Norwest said it was possible. We got on site and early on I decided to try and see what it was like. I turned it on and could not believe how it changed everything, even though you couldn’t really consciously hear it. The most gratifying thing was there were singers sitting in the auditorium during the rehearsal, and when I pushed it up, they all looked up. It was the exact psychoacoustic effect that we wanted.”
And of course, under the stage keeping the performer's happy, there's always Watto..
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