TV facilities from 2005
OK – I know what you’re thinking. Clearly the Royal Opera House is not a TV studio. However, it does have a suite of TV control rooms and infrastructure enabling live transmission of operas and ballets to cinemas worldwide. So let’s bend the rules a bit, call it a ‘television theatre’, and have a look at this fascinating venue.
The current auditorium was built in 1858, taking only 7 months to complete. (It is the third one on the site – the previous buildings were lost to fire.) Unfortunately, they forgot to put up any signage inside the corridors and foyers and the audience took so long to get to their seats that the first opera began two and a half hours late. The performance was abandoned at midnight. This and other snags were soon fixed and the ROH built a reputation for worldwide excellence over the years. However, although some improvements were carried out backstage, by the 1990s it was clear that the very old stage with its Victorian fly tower and very limited backstage space were severely restricting what the Opera House could achieve.
The decision was made to completely rebuild and enlarge the stage and backstage area, so the entire block surrounded by James St, Floral St, Bow St, Russell St and The Piazza, was acquired enabling a very ambitious scheme to be carried out. The work was done between 1997 and 1999, reopening with a televised gala on 1st December ’99. In essence, the auditorium now represents roughly a ninth of the footprint of the whole ROH site. The stage is another 9th, the old Floral Hall (now a foyer area) another 9th. Two huge rehearsal rooms take up two more 9ths and the remaining four 9ths are the vast backstage storage and handling area for sets.
The new fly tower is so high (37 metres) that 2 sets can be flown, one above the other. It has a rolling transverse bridge complete with built-in cherry picker enabling access to lights for rigging and focusing. Flying is computerised, using 142 electric winches, with programmable speeds from 1.8m per second to 1mm in 20 minutes. I’m not sure when that would be useful but you never know.
Most impressively, the stage and backstage area have a system of motorised rolling trucks or ‘wagons’. The stage takes 3 of these, each 14.8m x 4.9m. They can rise or descend on motorised lifts. They can then move offstage, either as a whole or individually whilst carrying the scenery, enabling entire sets to be stored in a side stage area, a rear stage area or in the two rehearsal rooms. The system resembles those plastic toys where you slide panels around to put numbers in the correct order. It means that an opera can be rehearsed during the day on the full set, then rolled off and another set rolled into position and relit ready for the evening’s performance in a matter of an hour or two. This is not a ‘nice to have’ gimmick – it means that far more performances of different operas and ballets can regularly be staged, thus increasing the income from ticket sales.
To see this in action, have a look at this video: A timelapse of the set change from afternoon rehearsals to the evening performance – YouTube
I have worked on a few televised operas here and can honestly say that standing in the vast backstage area and looking up and around is far more impressive than any film stage or TV studio I have seen. You look through the proscenium arch to the auditorium beyond – and it looks tiny. In fact, it seats about 2,260 (roughly similar to the Palladium, one of the largest theatres in London) – but compared with the backstage area, it is tiny. In the rebuild the structure of the auditorium was left much as before, although there were several improvements throughout to the seating, and the balcony was enlarged – and of course it was all repainted and the decorations beautifully restored.
You may recall that this all cost a great deal and the £58m of Lottery money spent on the rebuild became highly controversial. In fact, that was only 25% of the total cost. Another 40% came from the new shops fronting Covent Garden Piazza and James St and the rest from donations. It all seems a long time ago now but with the perspective of the years, it does look like money well spent – particularly when so much Lottery money has gone to so many other good causes since then.
Operas have been televised from this venue for many years but a problem has always been where to park the vehicles. By the early noughties, OB trucks were getting larger and larger and there simply wasn’t enough space for them. Around the same time, many cinemas were removing their film projectors and replacing them with digital projectors. Films were distributed to cinemas not in heavy spools but via hard drives and discs. It wasn’t long before someone realised that there might be a market for making video recordings of operas and displaying them in cinemas, now that there was a way of projecting the TV pictures.
In 2005 the ROH bit the bullet and installed fully equipped TV control rooms in the basement enabling them to record operas and sell them to cinemas. The system was by Sony and included a Probel Sirius router, MVS8000 mixer and 2 HDCAM VTR decks.
To display on cinema screens, it was essential that the pictures were in high definition and fortunately HD cameras were just arriving on the market. The ROH purchased five Sony HDC-950s and fitted a few of them to positions around the auditorium on remotely controlled heads. It soon became clear that it was not possible to control these with the finesse required for close-ups so they were only used for wide shots. Positions within the auditorium were established for operated cameras when required. Cabling was installed and various seats were made to be easily removed, enabling fast rigs and derigs. In fact now only two remote cameras are used – one wide shot from the centre and the other on the conductor.
The sound control room was installed at the same time as the TV galleries. BBC Radio 3 used to bring OB trucks, but (with a few exceptions caused by date clashes) have used these facilities since 2006. The sound room was installed in a small space near the production gallery, but once the ROH started doing production in-house, it was fairly quickly decided that the room was much too small for surround, so they built a new sound gallery in the spring of 2008. Equipment was pretty much the same then as it is now – Studer Vista 8 (core was upgraded from the old Performa core to the Score in 2010 which made surround mixing much easier), B&W 802D monitors, Merging Technologies Pyramix x2 for recording & editing, Lexicon 960 (and subsequently Bricasti M7) for reverb. The old sound control room was recycled into a gallery for doing smaller scale stuff and presentation mixes.
Later, films began to be distributed to cinemas via satellite. New York’s Metropolitan Opera realised that this gave a new opportunity to show operas live, adding some extra excitement to the performance. Their first such broadcast was The Magic Flute at Christmas 2006. The Royal Opera House was the second in the world to pick up on this new opportunity and the first live relay to cinemas (Don Giovanni) was in September 2008, once enough UK cinemas had been equipped with satellite receivers.
Chris Bretnall oversaw the first installation in the room two floors below the stage. That was in constant use for about ten years when they started to discuss a complete reinstallation update. This happened in 2019 and was a 12 week install by Megahertz. Same rooms, all new furniture and kit. It is now a 12G-SDI facility with Ross Ultrix router, Ross Carbonite Ultra mixer, EVS & Atomos recorders. Cameras are hired for show recordings and relays – usually Sony HDC 3500s. Six to eight cameras are normally used for recordings or cinema relays plus two for presentation duties. The new gallery is not only 4K capable, it can also work as a remote gallery to another venue. The gallery is cabled for broadcasts from the main stage, the Linbury Theatre and The Clore studio theatre – all within the ROH building. Programmes have also been made in the Floral Hall.
For live relays a working pattern was established which is still in use. The TV director watches the opera several times and prepares a shooting script. Meanwhile, a freelance TV lighting director also watches a rehearsal or two, using a camera to check how the lighting looks on a monitor. He also has a monitor with a read-out of the lighting cues. He notes all those cues that will need to be modified in order to look ‘correct’ on the cinema screen. Very bright elements have to be reduced in level and very dark areas or entire scenes brought up in brightness. The intention is always that the lighting on screen should look as close as possible to the effect seen directly by the audience at a normal performance. A list of cues is passed to the ROH lighting department and the cues are modified, saving them as a file only to be used for the cinema relay performance.
On a dress rehearsal day for the opera a couple of weeks before the live relay (taking a few hours during the day with the full set and lighting) the camera crew run through the whole opera. This is the first time they have seen it so there may be a few shots that don’t quite work. The LD also checks that his modified cues look good on screen – again, some may need further adjustment. Some tweaks are made during the rehearsal, others will be done ‘blind’ later. The recorded rehearsal is then viewed by the various heads of department in a local cinema a few days later and notes taken. Then comes the live relay to cinemas and hopefully it will all look great on cinema screens all over the world.
During the performance the LD sits in his own tiny control room at the rear of the stalls listening to both TV production talk-back and the theatre cues from the deputy stage manager (DSM). A monitor displays what lighting cue is currently in use, how many seconds or minutes it is running for and which one comes next. He talks to the vision engineers in their gallery who are ‘racking’ the cameras and can warn them if a lighting cue is about to make the stage much brighter or darker so they can be ready to adjust the cameras’ exposure during the cue. He is also in communication with the follow spot operators and can advise them if their light level is not correct for the cameras.
I have been involved in a few of these as lighting director and they were genuinely a huge privilege to be involved with. I hadn’t considered myself an opera fan but it was impossible not to be swept up in the magnificent staging, the beautiful music and the overall spectacular theatricality of it all.
Nerd alert – as well as many operas, ballets and Bafta award ceremonies being filmed here, in 1996 the ROH auditorium was the location for the opera house in the classic sci-fi movie The Fifth Element. Next time you go to see an opera, just imagine the blue alien singing her aria on stage whilst Bruce Willis was battling with the evil Mangalores in the stalls.
I’m grateful to the following for much of the information above – Bernie Davis, Mark Thackeray, Peter Byram and two articles in the magazine of the Society of Television Lighting and Design.