Classical:Next, day three: Concert hall and opera house design

- 2 June 2013

Opera houses and concert halls have stuck to horseshoe and shoebox shapes respectively for centuries, but today’s needs are dictating new shapes, David Staples, principal of Theatre Projects Consultants, told a Classical:Next conference.

Since the Teatro San Cassiano opened in Venice in 1637, he said, opera houses had stuck to the horseshoe shape with stacked levels of boxes and seats radiating out from a narrow stage apron.

The layout is far from ideal in terms of audience sightlines, but it allows those in the audience to be seen by others, he said.

Concert halls had stuck to the plain rectangular shape on acoustic grounds, though. Vienna’s Musikverein ‘is the best concert hall in the world’ – but it is the same shape as Leeds Town Hall, which opened 12 years earlier in 1858.

In recent years there have been changes: the ‘vineyard’ layout of the Berlin Philharmonie, its central stage surrounded by terraced seats, and the Sage in Gateshead: ‘The main hall sounds wonderful but visually does it set the heart racing?’

A number of factors were dictating an end to these architectural traditions. ‘Around the world there is less money, whether from governments or sponsors, for artistic innovation.’

And the one area of performance art that has seen audience growth is opera. This was in part because of the ageing, more affluent demographic in many countries, but also the spread of surtitles. ‘Until 20 years ago, you had to know the plot of La bohème or read the synopsis.’

Technological development was also seeing greater use of video projection and broadcasting in performance.

Finally, as smaller cities and towns sought to have arts centres, the need for multi-purpose design became paramount.

One response to these trends was the New World Center in Miami, home for the New World Orchestra training ensemble for young artists. The Frank Geary design lined the 780-seat auditorium with 14 ‘sails’ on to which high-definition projectors could project images.

As well as their use in performance, they were connected to the education-focused Internet2 network. ‘So you could have a maestro here in Vienna giving a masterclass to players in Miami plus, say, a string section in Australia.’

On the exterior was an 800 sq metre screen so people outdoors could watch performances from inside the hall for free.

One region that does have funding for the arts is the Middle East, Mr Staples said. In particular, the sultan of Oman is an organist and enthusiast of Western music, so commissioned a hall to be used for opera, concerts, ballet and musicals.

One-third of the hall can be moved around to adapt the interior shape for any of those purposes. The 16-tonne space can be slid from one location to another in 16 minutes, and boxes on the stage sides also move, to allow a narrow stage apron for opera, a wider one for concerts and other uses.

Most radical, Mr Staples said, is the Salle Modulable that Michael Haefliger hopes to make a home for opera and music theatre at Lausanne Festival. The scheme is bogged down in financial difficulties but if built will offer almost infinite changes in shape as modules of space are moved around.

A musician in the audience questioned whether these variations in design meant a deterioration in acoustics. ‘The science of acoustics has changed hugely in the past 40 or 50 years,’ Mr Staples responded. ‘People have found ways of varying the acoustics without a deterioration in sound.’

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