Issue 87

Outdoor Opera Goes Immersive

In a UK first, Nevill Holt Opera will use a virtual acoustic shell for their outdoor opera season in Market Harborough, Leicestershire


25 August 2021

For 2021 for the very first time, Nevill Holt Opera is staging its productions in an impressive outdoor venue. In a UK first, Nevill Holt Opera will make use of a virtual acoustic shell, part of d&B audiotechnik’s immersive sound technology Soundscape, for their outdoor opera season.

Operas are most often staged within theatres where the acoustics are designed for non-amplified performances, preserving clarity while natural enhancing the power of voice and the rich detail of the orchestra. This is true for Nevill Holt Opera as well. Staging opera outside means leaving the optimal acoustic space behind, meaning that organisers have to ensure the listening experience is as accurate and emotionally direct as it can be.

Leading audio technology and solutions provider d&b audiotechnik has created a revolutionary immersive sound technology called d&b Soundscape, enabling the user to create a transparent, enveloping listening experience that connects the ears to the eyes. For the prestigious Ravenna Festival in Italy, Soundscape has been the trusted and preferred audio solution since 2016. The sound team at the festival are experts in working with Soundscape and specifically the acoustic shell, creating virtual acoustic environments for the orchestra as well as the singers. This year at Nevill Holt the same principles have been applied.

Talking about approaching an outdoor festival due to the pandemic, Nevill Holt Opera Managing Director Annie Lydford says, “Our indoor theatre has been designed to favour young voices and works beautifully without amplification. Outside, even the most powerful un-amplified voices run the risk of getting lost. Therefore, amplification was necessary, but it had to be as natural and unobtrusive as possible. We are excited about Soundscape because it aims to follow the movement of singers around the stage, preventing a disconnect between what our audiences hear and what they see.”

Nicholas Chalmers, Artistic Director at Nevill Holt Opera, comments, “The acoustics in our new theatre are fantastic, so when facing the need to stage this season outdoors we wanted the listening experience to be first class. The audience need to feel immersed in the operatic sound. Soundscape facilitates this immersion.”

Technologies play a big role in Nevill Holt’s contemporary approach to opera and championing younger voices. Chalmers comments, “Opera has a long history and it is in all our interests to match new technology with the genius of these famous compositions. Soundscape was introduced to us by our fantastic sound designer Mark Rogers. It was a revelation when I experienced its capabilities and the sensation of sound corresponding both visually and acoustically. One of the first questions our audience asked was ‘will we be able to hear the singers?’ People have high expectations of what can and should be achieved by sound amplification. We were looking for a way that would give the audience an opera house experience, but outdoors. Soundscape provides the answer. We’re thrilled that the entire audience is able to hear what they see and vice versa.”

Annie Lydford says, “Solutions like Soundscape widen where it is possible to stage opera, and how we can do this in a way that doesn’t undermine the fantastic music-making and drama happening onstage.”

Sound Designer Mark Rogers says of the main challenges when trying to deliver a natural sounding opera using amplification, “Opera can be an epic experience. But at its heart it is profoundly intimate. It is this contrast, what Puccini described as ‘little people with big emotions’, that makes sound design for opera such an absorbing challenge. We want the audience to revel in the sumptuousness, whilst engaging with the characters’ stories. The technology is there to serve a dramatic and emotional purpose, but we don’t want to draw attention to it. This is where Soundscape comes in. Rather than a disembodied voice seeming to emerge from a loudspeaker that is nowhere near the singer, diverting the audience’s attention away from the action and onto the technology, Soundscape locates each singer’s voice as coming from the right place.”

Chris Jones, Managing Director at Southby Productions, comments, “The stage includes an elevated walkway towards the audience. This means a singer could be as far as 25 metres away from a loudspeaker were this a traditional setup. This distance equates to 72 milliseconds of delay from when an audience member hears the natural sound wave emanating from a singer. This is very distracting as you’d be hearing the vocals twice. Soundscape solves this problem by addressing the audience via multiple loudspeakers and delaying the amplified sound, so it is perfectly in time with the original source, the singer’s mouth.”

About the acoustic shell, Adam Hockley, Technical Support at d&b, explains, “The d&b Virtual Acoustic Shell is a special way in which to apply the d&b Soundscape system. It utilises a software called En-Space, which recreates acoustic signatures of prestigious classical music venues around the world without the need of any cumbersome structures or chambers on stage to achieve this. The virtual shell gives the performers the feeling of residing indoors, benefitting from the same sound qualities an opera house would generate. This way they are able to get the most out of their performance, which in turn gives the audience the best possible experience.”

The d&b Soundscape is making waves all around the world and has been adopted by renowned artists such as Bjork, who utilised it for her 2019 Cornucopia tour, saying it generated “the most gorgeous sound that [she] ever heard in a room”, and iconic venues such as the Royal Albert Hall which owns and operates an inhouse d&b system, applying Soundscape for some of their celebrated annual productions like The Nutcracker.


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