Creating a Great Opera House
Mariinsky II Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia
by Tateo Nakajima | partner | May 28, 2003
Creating a great facility for opera and ballet performances is as complex a challenge as producing the art forms themselves.
The beauty of opera lies in bringing together the natural sound of the human voice, the sound of the human voice, the sounds of the instruments in the orchestra pit, drama, scenery, costumes and lighting, and combining all these elements into a meaningful whole. Designing an appropriate space for great performances requires a similar balance and melding of musical appreciation and understanding, immersion in the history and practice of opera, ballet, theatre and architecture, the application of objective principles governing the esthetics, as well as an understanding of the best and most appropriate current technologies for scenery handling and storage, lighting and rigging, and multi-media/sound and communication systems. Moreover, designing an opera house requires a full, hands-on understanding of the specific nature of its day-to-day operations and artistic, technical administrative types of activities.
The first working meeting between Mariinsky Theater Artistic and General Director Valery Gergiev and Artec took place during the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra's appearance at the Lucerne Festival in September 2002, At that time, Valery Gergiev emphasized that the main goal of the renovation of the historic theater and the construction of the Mariinsky II is to provide a solid basis and the technical capability to support the future artistic growth of the Mariinsky Theater's opera and ballet companies. At the beginning of October 2002 in St. Petersburg, our formal relationship with the Mariinsky Theater was established, and Artec was instructed to start to work in four areas:
1. Preparing technical materials (in theatre planning and acoustics) for the architectural competition, already scheduled to get under way in less than a month's time.
2. Continuing this work as the acoustics designer, theatre planner and theatre-equipment consultant for the Mariinsky II project.
3. Providing acoustics consulting services for the renovation of the historic Mariinsky Theater
4. Taking responsibility for the coordination of the two separate projects from a theatre-planning perspective.
Artec immediately met with the other members of the workgroup who had already been working for many months to prepare for this competition. We studied the work of the many people already involved. Without their work, it would have been an impossible task for Artec to create the required comprehensive competition materials in the few weeks that were available.
In order to define the Preliminary Building Program for Mariinsky II, Artec had an extensive series of interviews with the technical and administrative staff of the Mariinsky Theater's opera and ballet companies, as well as the Mariinsky Theater Orechestra. Arec also engaged in intensive interviews with Valery Gergiev on his expectations of the future of the Mariinsky Theater, how the development of the performance spaces will support his overall artistic vision for the institution, and his expectations of programming and planning for the years to come. During these meetings, Valery Gergiev expressed his expectations in acoustics, based on his many years of conducting in many opera halls and concert halls around the world. These requirements formed the basis for the complex and detailed design work that went into creating the Basic Design of the Mariinsky II auditorium, which was completed by the beginning of December 2002.
By the end of December, Artec produced the preliminary layout of the scenery handling and scenery storage systems for Mariinsky II. Along with the Basic Design of the auditorium, this material was provided to each of the competing architects with the intention that they be incorporated into each design submission. They would also form the basis for the work of the design team after the competition.
Artec's responsibility as theatre planner was to examine the current and future needs of the company, not only in its new building, but in the facility as a whole. Artec examined the operational logistics of the opera, ballet and orchestra departments in the current facility, as this way the key element in developing a full understanding of the operational characteristics, organization and schedules of the company. There is no doubt that the technical and administrative areas of the existing building and the back-of•house areas have evolved over many years, with departments growing into available space as necessary, In fact, nearly every department is, at best, only moderately comfortable. Most are in need of more space and, in many cases, need to be in better organic relationship with the other departments.
It was agreed that the worst possible solution was for each department to retain its current space in the historic Mariinsky Theater and receive additional spaces in Mariinsky II, as this would lead to each department having an even more fragmented infrastructure. During interviews, staff were therefore asked to provide the total necessary space for their departments - not the amount of needed additional space - so that preliminary decisions could be made about the departments that would ultimately completely move to Mariinsky II, where they would have all the necessary space in one area, and which departments would stay in the historic facility with additional spaces found for them (if necessary).
These decisions were made with the administration of the Mariinsky and in collaboration with the Fabre/Scene/Setec consortium, the general designer for the renovation of the historic Mariinsky Theater, as it undertook a comprehensive diagnostic study of the historic theater. Once these decisions were made, Artec had enough information to produce the Preliminary Building Program that was provided as part of the technical information package given to each of the competing architects.
Scenery Handling and Scenery Storage
One of the principal reasons behind the decision to undertake the design and construction of a new opera facility for the Mariinsky Theater was the severe limitations on continuing artistic development placed on the company by the lack of space and technical facilities in its current theater, which has no side stages, no rear stage, no assembly area, minimal storage space, no stage lifts of any description and antiquated stage lighting and rigging systems. While the situation in the existing building will be considerably improved by the proposed renovations, it is understood that the historic theater, although beloved for its architecture, acoustics and rich historical associations, will never be able to provide the technical facilities that have become a real necessity over the last decades.
When Artec started work in October 2002, we worked handed a concept of the scenery handling systems as it had been developed until then. This original concept was refined and developed in extensive collaboration with Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Theater Technical Director Andrei Pronichev and other administrators from the Mariinsky Theater, and our special consultants, including Richard Brett and John Harrison. We also had the opportunity to greatly benefit from having the developing sketches reviewed by Joseph Clark, the technical director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
From the beginning of December 2002 we worked in collaboration with the Fabre/Scene/Setec team on various issues involving the existing theater. One of the key issues was the manner in which scenery elements will be moved between the two buildings. Once that was resolved after extensive discussions with Valery Gergiev, Andrei Pronichev and the architect, Xavier Fabre, Artec proposed a working preliminary layout of the principal performance areas and associated support spaces, including the main, side and rear stages, the major rehearsal room, principal dressing rooms, scenery storage areas, scenery assembly areas and truck docks for Mariinsky II.
A final walk-through of the layout took place in early January 2003, with all the key decision makers present. The approved design was included in the technical materials for the architectural competition provided to the competition architects during the colloquium on January 15.
Artec was commissioned to produce the acoustics and theatre planning Basic Design for the 2,000-seat audience chamber of Mariinsky II. This auditorium must have first-class acoustics balanced with good sightlines, and good aural and visual intimacy between the audience and the performers.
An important secondary use of this room will be concert performances by the Mariinsky Theater's orchestras and visiting orchestras. The fact that Valery Gergiev has stipulated that Mariinsky II must be a very good venue for symphonic-music performances presents a complex challenge for the acoustics designer, as the fundamental acoustics and architectural characteristics of a good space for symphonic music and a good space for opera are very different.
The Basic Design for the new auditorium incorporates the traditional horseshoe shape. Our study of top-ranking opera buildings in use today demonstrates that the horseshoe shape, combined with four to six tiers of balconies wrapping around the audience chamber, has consistently produced excellent visual intimacy and superior acoustics for opera. Once this Basic Design developed pas a certain point, Artec started a process of comparing it with the plans and sections of highly respected facilities in existence, to not similarities and differences. On the basis of these comparisons, the design was adjusted and refined.
The proposed Basic Design allows for the height of the reflector above the orchestra pit to be adjusted depending on whether the performance has the orchestra in the pit or on the stage. It also incorporates an acoustically transparent ceiling that will allow the design team to maintain a human scale for the room and still allow for increased cubage at the top of the room.
The orchestra pit is designed to accommodate an orchestra up to 80 people, with most of the musicians seated in the open. For acoustics reasons, there are overhangs on three sides of the pit. There is an extension lift for the pit that can make the pit larger, to a capacity of approximately 104 people. Both pit lifts can also accommodate wagons with permanently attached seats so that the seating capacity of the facility can be adjusted to be as large as the pit use allows.
Once the design team is authorized to begin work, the architect, the client representatives and Artec will work closely together to mold the basic architectural characteristics of the design in such a way that it fulfills the architectural vision as well as the acoustics and theatre-planning requirements.
From the outset, it was very clear to everyone involved that the construction of the Mariinsky II must lead to the creation of a unique facility. This theater must equal or surpass, in every way, the four or five best opera facilities in the world. The architectural, acoustic, theatre-planning aspects and technical systems of this new theater must be commensurate with the artistic stature of the Mariinsky Theater's opera and ballet companies and its orchestras. Furthermore, all four of these parameters must be in cohesive balance with each other. Finally, although the Mariinsky II project is funded as a completely separate project from the renovation of the historic Mariinsky Theater, the result of the two buildings must constitute a rational whole that will function efficiently as one entitiy, one harmonious facility with two major performance venues embracing Kryukov Canal.