Centre Stage

How the Royal Opera House Muscat sets a standard for regional arts & culture venues
The Royal Opera House Muscat.
The Royal Opera House Muscat.

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If there’s one subject that crops up time and time again when discussing the current state of the events industry in the Middle East, it would have to be the specially-designed concert venues that can be found in this region. Or lack of.

While it’s not too long until Dubai gets its own indoor arts entertainment space as part of the upcoming opera district, our nearby neighbours in Oman have been enjoying the fruits of a very special venue for some time now.

Bruno Da Silva, assistant head of sound and broadcast at the Royal Opera House Muscat, explains: “The Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) is a cultural landmark arts facility established by Royal Decree to develop the Sultanate of Oman’s cultural heritage and artistic engagement. Under His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said’s instruction, whose visionary leadership and passion for music has made this project possible, ROHM acts also as a cultural link to the rest of the world, being also an educational project as well as a project to promote Omani cultural heritage. It is also part of the vision to integrate Omani nationals in to the industry by providing training and opportunities of work.”

While the very notion of an opera house may conjure up images of an antiquated, stuffy venue for many, ROHM is continuing to push forward where other Opera Houses have forged the way. Far from one-dimensional ‘boring’ spaces, the opera house of today contain a host of state-of-the-art technology and hidden tricks to ensure that a variety of entertainment options can make use of the venue and draw in audiences of all ages and interests.

Da Silva reveals: “The auditorium is a multi-form room designed to accommodate a wide range of performance types in a technically and acoustically perfect setting. There are two basic configurations: theatre mode and concert mode. In theatre mode, the auditorium seats from 835 up to 965 audience members, depending whether the pit is being used and how big it is. In concert mode, the seating can also vary between 976, 983 or 1058 up, depending how deep the stage will be set.”

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He continues: “Most venues are designed either as theatres or concert halls. The concept was to make it possible to have both room types in one single auditorium. Concert mode is achieved by the use of advanced automated stage-engineering systems in order to create the right environment for classical (acoustic) music performances. A 750-tonne ‘Concert Shell’ with variable acoustics is moved into place on tracks from the rear of the stage and merges with the auditorium. The same ID in the auditorium was integrated in the concert shell, so when merged together, the concert shell is no longer an individual unit but part of the auditorium making the room a concert hall.”

But, even with its varied use and multitude of performance spaces, the main priority for a designated music venue should surely be the acoustic quality that it offers — particularly with an art form as nuanced as opera? Naturally, however, with a venue so heavily-laced with the most current stage technology, the acoustics of ROHM were carefully considered.

Da Silva explains: “The concept is to achieve the acoustics of a classical European Opera House as well as concert hall — able to accommodate grand opera, chamber, classical orchestral concerts, organ recitals, eastern band performances and amplified performances such as Jazz, Western, Arabic and World music. Inside the auditorium is the most crucial area for noise. The sorts of noise issues that can affect this area are air conditioning, lighting, stage machinery and audience noise. In order to reduce external noise into the auditorium, it was given thick walls, and at the entrance doors there is a room between the auditorium doors and foyer doors acting as a sealing area. This room is treated with perforated walls and ceiling with internal padding for noise absorption.”

However, the attention to detail in creating the ideal acoustic environment was sensitively executed in order to ensure that another aspect of the Opera House didn’t suffer. As John Loader, deputy project director for ROHM, says: “The aim was to achieve the design of a Palace. Recognised as an outstanding venue for musical events, the Royal Opera House Muscat is also a breathtakingly beautiful building.”

Loader continues: “Opening the doors reveals an interior that one might expect to find in a palace or an opera house from the golden ages of European design. All of the technical systems that one would expect to find in a modern world class Opera House are here, but incorporated into the design of the building almost symbiotically. Take, for example, the massive 'cluster speakers' that can descend from the 'attic' ceiling space above the auditorium. If we look up at the ceiling, we will not be able to see where the speakers are located, or, indeed, where they came from when they become visible. Deployed through trap doors in the ceiling, these close seamlessly again after the speakers have passed through, leaving the smooth harmony of the ceiling panels intact.”

And it’s this marriage of the latest technology with an erstwhile ambience that has been key to achieving the final ROHM result — a result that has seen a stream of high calibre concerts and cultural performances grace its stage since opening in 2011, all taking advantage of the technically-precise yet beautifully-camouflaged elements. As Loader himself sums it up: “Numerous such technical features are repeated throughout the design of the Opera House, so well integrated into the fabric of the building that their very existence might be doubted if we could not hear or see how they enhance our enjoyment of every performance.”

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Sound focus
Bruno Da Silva explains the intricacies involved in the Opera House's acoustic treatment and design…

“Considering ROHM’s unique feature to become either a theatre or a concert hall, there are certain acoustic aspects that were taken into consideration based on the fact that a concert hall with an organ requires a more live-type of an acoustic environment than a traditional theatre. Tools were put in place in order to allow the manipulation of the acoustics in order to meet the sound requirements in the two different modes.

In concert mode, we have the concert shell with a pipe organ fitted at the rear. The concert shell acts very effectively as a reflective ‘driver’ increasing considerably the response of sound in the auditorium, therefore ideal for acoustic performances. The concert shell comprises acoustic tools such as large panels located in the ceiling that can travel independently up and down controlled by motors.

There are also other tools such as side panels that are integrated in the walls of the shell. These panels can be manually opened or closed and will impact on the amount of sound reflected to the auditorium. When closed we achieve maximum projection of sound and when opened we reduce the projection of sound. We can also run fitted acoustic curtains behind and around the shell so when the side panels are opened, the curtains will help to absorb sound we are allowing to ‘escape’.

The auditorium itself has also a number of features and tools that have impact on the acoustics as well as its manipulation. One of these types of acoustic treatments are the seats, as these are covered in fabric and padding that is designed to absorb the same amount of sound energy as if a person was seated. So, even when the seat is empty, there will be almost a neutral impact on the acoustics of the room.

There are two sets of walls in the sides of the auditorium, inner and outer. The inner walls of the auditorium have areas that are perforated, some with removing panels, allowing the sound to travel through. These walls, also have inside acoustic curtains controlled by motors that can be rolled in or out, being another tool that can be used in order to control the amount of sound travelling or act as absorption. The doors on these inner walls can also be kept opened or closed accordingly to control the sound dispersion.

At the back of levels one, two and three there are also acoustic curtains and padded panels that can be used to help create a more “dry” room when necessary — normally used for amplified performances but sometimes for acoustic performances too — while in the ceiling above the lighting bridges, there is an acoustic curtain controlled by a motor that can be closed or open to act as an ‘absorption barrier’ to help separate the sound from the stage area to the auditorium. Also, the auditorium — in its beautiful design — is largely built with thick wood, which provides a rich and warm sound throughout. The Royal Opera House Muscat has a very unique acoustics and is able to offer a diversity of acoustic settings and modes to meet different types of performances.”

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Illuminating Insight
Donald Cox, head of lighting, explained to Sound & Stage: “The general set-up depends on the visiting company. As we are a receiving house we tend to have a stock of most type of lights, Fresnels to Vari-Light profiles and washes. As we have to cater for such a wide variety of shows, I think our crew would have to be of the highest standards to be able to cater for so many different types of shows.”

Achieving prestige
John Loader provides an overview of the entire ROHM operation, from concept to concerts…

His Majesty's instruction
“Following an instruction from His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, The Royal Estates, Royal Court Affairs, entered into detailed discussions with Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC) to develop a brief for a 1,100 seat concert house in Muscat. The building was to provide a world class 'multi-purpose' theatre and concert hall, capable of housing operatic, theatrical and orchestral performances.”

Performance areas
“The Royal Opera House Muscat has benefited considerably from new developments in stage technology, and can be completely reconfigured to form a world class concert hall through state-of-the-art elements. As well as the main stage, it also has five other performance or event spaces available for use. These are an intimate studio theatre, the roof terrace, the porch, the foyer and a multi-purpose meeting room. “

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Main stage
“The performing area of the main stage is around 20m x 20m square, but there are also two large side stages and a rear stage to accommodate scenery, props and lighting. This gives it a stage equal to any other Opera House in the world.”

Concert shell and organ
“Within the rear stage area is stored a magnificent 750-tonne 'concert shell' giving the Opera House the facility to quickly change from a major theatrical venue to a classical concert hall in a matter of hours. To imagine the concert shell, think of a giant steel bridge clad in the same gilded teak finishes as the main auditorium, which 'carries' a 50-tonne concert organ downstage, on tracks, to where the shell couples with the auditorium proscenium.

Stage floor, traps and elevators
“The stage floor covers approximately 1500sqm and has a working load of 7.5KN per square metre. In the centre of this is a large trap room underneath the stage with the facility to create 15 trap doors through the stage surface. The traps are built into the floor and enable performers or pieces of set to 'magically' appear or disappear on purpose built elevators and slider mechanisms. Three large elevators comprise the front section of the stage, and these can be lowered to form an orchestra pit, or raised to form a thrust stage for more intimate productions."

Fly tower
“Rising high above the stage, the fly tower houses all of the lifting equipment over the stage areas. This housing, known as ‘The Grid’, is 32m high — three times the height of the 14m x 10m proscenium arch in Opera House mode. Suspended from the grid is the lighting and scenery lifting equipment called ‘bars’ or ‘pipes’ and, as there are no dedicated lighting or stage scenery bars, all of the 'flying' bars can be used for anything, giving total flexibility. There are 56 in total and they can move vertically at speeds between 1mm and 1.6m per second. Each bar is 20m long and can carry up to 750kg, with the entire flying movement managed by sophisticated computer controlled systems.”

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Setting the scene
Barry Hudson, head of stage, explained to Sound & Stage that the crew needed for each operatic production: “Varies depending on the size and complexity of the opera being done.” He continued: “For example we needed 36-stage crew for Vienna Opera’s Marriage of Figaro (this required us to hire in extra staff), but for Aida we only needed 10 crew to run the performances as it was more heavily biased towards projection rather than scenery.”

“Ballets tend to vary also depending on the size and complexity of the particular show,” Hudson adds. “On average about 14-stage crew are required. Get ins and get outs always require many more people to unload and assemble scenery, then dismantle and reload sea containers. Generally about 18 people are used to change from Theatre mode to concert mode, and set up modular decking to accommodate an Orchestra. Running an orchestra show then usually only requires about six people.”

The team also changes greatly for the other types of performances that take place at ROHM. Hudson explains: “Musicals tend to vary also depending on the size and complexity of the particular show, but on average about 14 stage crew are required. Generally about 18 people are used to change into a jazz event, then running the show usually only requires about six people. World music events are pretty much similar to jazz events in staff numbers.”

Technical Specifications
Talking us through the sound system used in the main auditorium, Da Silva explains: "PA/loudspeakers are Meyer Sound M’elodie range and can be configured as L&R or L,C,R. They comprise 01 x 500-HP & 09 x M’elodie tops per cluster. We also use additional ground stacks as out-fills (02 x 500HP + 01 x UPQ-1P), 01 x UPA-1P per side as in-fills placed against the proscenium covering mainly the first three to four rows, front-fills (UPM-1P), all together to complement the line array coverage in a more efficient way. The addition of the ground stacks and In-fills allows us to lower the stereo image to the stalls level, providing a better set up for the FOH engineer to mix and also a better experience to the audience on the ground level as they don’t have to struggle with the factor of looking to the artist ahead and feeling the sound coverage from the top. Our current FOH and monitor consoles include Midas Pro2, DigiDesign SC48 and Digico SD9."

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KIT LIST
EQ/Signal Processing/FX
In terms of signal processing (EQ, dynamics) and FX, ROHM has a wide range of brands and models from Klark, Teknik, Drawmer, XTA, Eventide, Lexicon, TC Electronics, and Yamaha.

Recording & Playback
The range goes from Klark, Teknik, Pro Tools, Tascam & QLab. For mic preamps we have Summit and Behringer for headphones amplifiers. In-ear phones are a combination of Shure, Sennheiser and AKG.

Microphones
ROHM made sure it would have a comprehensive variety from different brands in order to cover the diverse programme for live and recordings. It has in stock over 400 microphones complemented with a wide range of respective accessories. The microphone stock comprises AKG, Audix, Bartlett, BeyerDynamic, C-Ducer, Crown, Da-Cappo, DPA, Electro-Voice, Microtech Gefell, Neumann, Royer, Sennheiser, Schoeps, Shure, and Soundfield. The D.I. boxes available are BSS and Radial, while all microphone and loudspeaker stands are K&M.

Additional Sound Consoles
There are some additional smaller sound consoles to cover small events or to support musicians on stage such as Midas Venice, Yamaha LS9 and DM-1000, and Allen & Heath ZED-12FX.

Additional Loudspeakers
The range of additional loudspeakers is covered by Meyer Sound, such as 500-HP, Mina, MJF-212A, UM-100P, UPA-1P, UPM-1P, UPQ-1P and UP-Junior. For smaller applications, ROHM offers a range of Genelec such as 8030AP, 8040AP and 7060BP.

Audio Digital Network
Alternatively to the integrated patching facilities, ROHM put together a set-up of Optocore, which consists of an optical digital fibre-based network, able to carry up to 256 channels of audio @ 48KHz and 128 audio channels @ 96KHz. The network is built from multiple racks that can be used in different locations according to production requirements. The I/O units available within the network are: X6R FX; X6R TP; DD4MR, DD2FR, DD32R, LX4B and an additional RME Madi bridge.

Wireless Microphone Systems
The wireless microphone system is based on 18 channels of Sennheiser, 4 channels of Shure Axient and 64 channels of Zaxcom.

Wireless IEM Systems
The wireless microphone systems are based on 4 channels of Sennheiser, 6 channels of Shure PSM1000, and 16 channels of Zaxcom.

Video/Projection
Cameras: Panasonic AG-HPX371
Mixer: Panasonic
Server: Hippotizer HD | Portamus
(Portable Projector Control)?
Projectors: Christie CP 2230, Christie
Roadster HD-20K, Casio XJs
Splitters: Data Path
Screens: Da-Lite
Monitors: Melford
Tele Prompt: AutoCue System
Players: Do Re Mi, Denon

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