Opera on the Beach
The idea of transforming the sands of Coolangatta Beach into the Egyptian shoreline for an alfresco production of Aida looked good on paper. Unfortunately Queensland turned on some rather unseasonable weather which resulted in a lot of sand, wind, more sand plus some rain and more sand. It also resulted in a cancelled performance.
This new production of Aida came with camels, a huge cast, surf lifesavers, a community chorus, Griffith University student musicians and fireworks. The focal points of the stage were two 7.6m pharaoh statues carved from large blocks of polystyrene. The pharaohs and the wider stage took a specialist team of sculptors, welders, carpenters and scenic artists hundreds of hours to make.
Lighting was supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems with David Walters in charge of the lighting design. It was the first time that David had worked with Opera Australia and it was also the first time he had ever lit a production on a beach, and he admits there was a lot of finding his way through the development.
“It was a rather prolonged process to actually get this show happening with a couple of years of discussions beforehand,” commented David. “The initial brief I was given by Opera Australia was to ‘draw what I like’ and they’ll sort it out from there. Of course I did that but when reality struck, it was a wildly different thing!”
Programming was done late in the night in freezing conditions where the temperature actually got down to six degrees, exacerbated by a stiff ocean breeze.
“It was a very harsh environment for the equipment as everything ended up sticky with salt,” said David. “Lenses covered in salt obviously don’t give you as good a result as clean lenses! Hence maintenance was a big deal.”
Power was provided by a couple of generators and David remarked that Opera Australia’s special projects team were extremely expert at what they did. “All of my initial concerns were quashed, we had lovely quiet generators a long way from the stage and there were never any issues in terms of power,” he said.
With David’s proposed lighting extravaganza hit by budget constraints he returned to the drawing board. Director Hugh Halliday was very clear about what he wanted and David soon realized that big, bold and simple was the way to go with each act requiring a clean look.
The nature of the gig meant that there were limited places to position lighting. Two large towers were constructed either side of the stage for lighting and sound equipment plus there was a FOH tower fifty metres from the front of the stage. David pushed for the tower to go higher than originally planned to accommodate follow spots and achieve a slightly better FOH angle.
“I also pushed for some back lighting so we rigged truss along the back of the set,” he added. “In my initial drawings I had a truss the entire length of the set absolutely crammed with fixtures; the end result was that I had six Martin MACIII’s up there! Reality bit rather hard.”
The seriously simple lighting rig still delivered the bold looks required and for what was quite a tiny rig, David reports that he actually got quite a few good looks for each of the scenes. There were six MACIII’s front, back and each side with twenty ShowPro LED Par Hex 18 cans added to each of the side towers. From a distance of fifty metres, the MACIII’s were pushed to their limit and so David worked on contrast rather than brightness.
“There was also a row of twenty-two Quad LED IP strips along the front and that was pretty much it,” said David.“There was some onset electrics, again LED Pars and MR16 Birdies. I was adamant that I was to have follow spots and so I had four Robert Juliat Aramis out front. We had looked at using an automated tracking system but again reality bit but I was more than happy to use follow spot operators. The follow spots were used constantly and I was often doubling up on them too.”
Control was a MA Lighting grandMA2 light, with an MA2 on PC as backup, and both fed into an MA NPU which fed DMX to the system.
“Hugh Hamilton programmed the show for me and did a great job,” commented David. “I stick to the design and nowadays I ensure I engage a programmer early in the design process. It has become such a big part of the design process now and the consoles have become so idiosyncratic, you almost need a particular programmer for a particular console.”
Norwest Productions took care of the audio, drawing on their experience with Opera Australia’s yearly Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Sound was designed by Opera Australia’s Adrian Riddell and Tony David Cray, with Adrian commenting that the load in was particularly difficult.
“Obviously you can’t push gear on sand and so forklifts had to be used,” he said. “You had to land your case exactly in the correct position so load in was very precise. Some nights it was so windy in the FOH tower, we had to close it in as we couldn’t hear. In fact there were a few nights when the wind was like a gale. We had a lot of computers and electronics to keep going on a beach, and there were problems, keeping it all working was a bit of a struggle.”
Adrian and Tony took the same ethos that they had used for Handa Opera regarding the mic set up for the singers and the orchestra. All of the principal singers had two microphones, a main and a backup in case of dropouts. The Gold Coast is notorious for bad RF with a fairly small spectrum so the number of radio mics Adrian would have liked to use had to be decreased.
“The principals were double mic’ed first and then whatever was left, we gave to the chorus,” he said. “We had eight principal singers and twelve chorus members. The principal singers had DPA d:fine 4066 headset microphone and a DPA d:screet 4061 lapel microphone strapped together in a main and backup scenario. We’ve had a lot of experience with the d:fine 4066 mic with the Handa Operas and because it is an omni capsule, the wind seems to blow straight through it so we don’t get all that wind noise in the singing microphones.”
Fortunately Norwest’s RF guru Steve Caldwell was on hand to deliver an RF plot for all the microphones, and two-way radios with Adrian reporting that they didn’t have to change a frequency once. The PA was an L-Acoustics V-DOSC system with six V-DOSC per side, three dV-DOSC underhung and three dV-DOSC a side as front fill. Added to that were four SB218 subs a side and six Arcs as delays.
“The V-DOSC box is fantastic,” stated Adrian. “The high frequency throw, despite the high wind we experienced, covered front to back with no problems.”
At FOH Tony ran a DiGiCo SD7 which also controlled monitors as the singers were just using normal wedges, unlike the Handa Opera which utilises IEMs. Another interesting fact was the deployment of remotely triggered surtitle screens. Surtitles are the translation from the sung language of Italian into English so non Italian speakers can read what is being sung. Due to the tight budget the usual position of a dedicated surtitles operator who would flick through the slides was replaced by the use of more cues in the audio repedators score.
Laura Clare Handsford was probably the busiest person during the show with nearly 1200 cues in her score. Each time she saw a cue point in the score she pressed the large “Red” button. This would either trigger a change in the audio consoles state or trigger a midi command to the surtitles computers moving the slides along.
Big Picture provided the two 3m x 1m 7mm outdoor LED screens located either side of stage along with all the monitors required for cast to see the conductor from out the back in his tent.
Conductor: Tahu Matheson
Director: Hugh Halliday
Set Designer: David Fleischer
Costume Designer: Anna Cordingley
Lighting Designer: David Walters / Tony David Cray
Sound Designer: Adrian Riddell
Choreographer: Elise May
This article first appeared in the print edition of CX Magazine November 2017, pp.18-23.
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Photos: Scott Belzner. All text and photos © CX Media
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