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THE STAGE AS PRODUCTION WORKSHOP
BY I. de Solà-Morales, Ll.Dilmé, X. Fabré
Architects

The stage is the central element in the expansion of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. With the acquisition of the properties formerly occupied by housing on the Rambla and Carrer Unió that had limited the theatre’s old stage, sufficient room became available to build a stage – the visual space where the dramatic action takes place – allowing the proper movement, preparation, assembly and dismantling of sets, one with the adjoining areas, above and below, to the sides and behind, required to allow the staging of operas in all their glory.

However, the theatre building, divided into two main areas – the auditorium and the stage – is an organised ensemble of different spaces that, on the one hand, provides a comfortable place for the audience to enjoy the opera performance, and on the other hand, allows all of the people involved in giving the performance to carry out their specific tasks under the best possible conditions.

Although the stage itself has a central role, it is essential to bear in mind that this large area is at the heart of a very complex system of spaces, each one of them defined by their particular function, arranged in a network of horizontal and vertical connections permitting their organisation.

Work Organisation

The group of people working in an opera theatre has a much more complex structure than might be found in any business of a comparable size. From management and administration to the highly specialised technicians and artistic staff, this sort of theatre brings together an extremely diverse human collective, in terms both of its members’ training and their activities. The stage area must organise and provide room for all this activity, which, in many cases, is divided between day-to-day theatre tasks and those carried out during actual performances.

The four stage doors correspond to the four focal points of vertical communication serving the whole stage area. Around them are laid out the wardrobes, dressing rooms, production offices, property rooms, costume tailoring, hairdressing, make-up, administrative and artistic offices, management, rehearsal rooms and rest areas. This complex spatial organisation is essential to opera production.

Situation and Layout

The reconstructed auditorium, built in the same place and with the same orientation, maintains the auditorium-stage axis – the longest one possible on the site where the confiscated convent of the Discalced Trinitarian order had formerly stood – that made it the largest opera house in Europe from 1847 until the opening of the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris. The auditorium-stage axis determined the position of the new stage and the building’s perimeter, delineated by the Rambla, Carrer Unió and the neighbouring housing blocks, determined its shape.

The dimensions of the proscenium arch – and therefore of the maximum opening, measuring almost 14 metres – require a space for stage movement with a width of at least 15 metres. A depth of 22 metres has been attained from the asbestos curtain to the backstage entrance, of which 16 metres are mobile. In other words, this area measuring 15 x 16 metres can hold the scenery for a production mounted on a mobile system of large wagons (four wagons measuring 4 x 15 metres each).

The configuration of the mobile stage determined the size of the auxiliary scenery bays – the large areas for movement and assembly of sets – that are distributed around the stage in a cruciform arrangement. The need to alternate opera productions in order to be able to give more performances means that there are always two sets ready to be moved on-stage while a third is being assembled or dismantled, therefore requiring the existence of these scenery bays. Since not all of them can be simultaneously at the stage level, the solution here, as in most recently renovated European opera houses, was to provide room at a lower level, 16 metres below the stage, to hold the scenery bays for which no room is available at stage level.

Unique and Novel Features

Lowering the wagons with sets by means of the stage lifts (measuring 8 x 15 metres each) is an exacting task that could be avoided if there were sufficient room at stage level, but since the lifts do not have lateral guide rails work can be done, the wagons can be moved and sets can be assembled at the lower level with the four wagons joined together. This is possible because there are only two stage lifts and the guide rails are situated at the four corners of the stage pit, two for the front lift and two for the back lift. This is a simple but very practical advantage, one that has never been used before in an opera house.

All opera houses must deal with similar problems, but the solution is not always the same. The inauguration of each new stage sets higher standards for meeting the requirements of opera production and in this respect the Gran Teatre del Liceu has contributed such novelties as the flexibility in working with scenery bays at the understage level described above and the sophisticated system for moving wagons in four directions, both laterally and transversely. These movements are made by means of chains with ball bearings riding silently in teflon casings, with extreme precision in positioning thanks to a separate decoder for the axle of each chain’s drive pinion.

Another example is the installation of an equalising platform at the mouth of the stage, allowing the scenery wagons to be placed as near as possible to the proscenium and the theatre’s sounding board. This prevents the action on-stage from taking place too far back, which would force the singers to move in order to place themselves in the best position to sing their arias under the sounding board.

Movement and Access by Stage Sets

Opera productions are seldom given more than ten performances in any particular theatre. Besides alternating between two productions at any given time, opera houses are also constantly setting up the next production or dismantling the previous one. This is why there must be so much room available around the stage, even though the stage itself is only occupied on any given day by the set for that day’s performance. Co-productions and the exchange of productions with other theatres involve the transport of stage sets and stages must therefore be capable of handling this traffic.

The new stage would have been unworkable if the trucks carrying stage sets did not have direct access to the scenery bays used for setting up productions. Through an angled gateway on the corner of the Rambla and Carrer Unió, trucks can drive onto a platform that then raises them to the stage level, two metres above street level, or lowers them to the understage level.

Moving an opera production can require over eight container trucks and their cargo must be unloaded next to the area used for assembling stage sets.

Underground Engineering

In order to create the understage, very deep foundations had to be laid to ensure that intrusion into the water table in the area occupied by the stage would not alter the natural level in the surroundings. Any alteration of the water table would lead to settling and cause the foundations of neighbouring buildings to subside, with serious consequences. For this reason, during the first nine months of work on the site a barrier wall 1 metre thick and 52 metres deep was built around the perimeter of the stage area. This involved the use, for the first time in Barcelona, of a hydrodrill to ensure that the excavation was plumb and the concrete wall unbroken.

To cover the large opening of the stage area with the minimum depth, in order leave the greatest possible amount of usable space, a special and very carefully contrived steel structure was developed using especially slim pillars and beams. The requirements for assembling this structure, with its dimensions and the loads and thrusts that it would have to bear were the object of a comprehensive study to define the structure’s joints and welds with maximum precision.

The two large stage lifts to move the wagons carrying sets from stage level to the understage, 16 metres below, are supported and driven on four legs, each one of them with a worm rack. These racks carry four drive pinions that distribute the power provided by a central motor. The base of each leg is connected by three cables to counterweights to reduce power demands on the motor. The system is a counterbalanced electromechanical one, with great precision but conceptually very simple. One of system’s the requirements is the presence of eight wells to accommodate the legs of the lifts when they are lowered to the understage level.

The stage lifts have two tiers: the upper one, divided into two platforms and carrying two wagons, and the stage pit level, four metres below the stage, from which actors and scenery can be raised or lowered. The double body of stage lifts is operated from a depth of 24 metres, the lower level of the central stage pit, while the eight sealed wells for their legs reach a depth of 42 metres.

The Flying Tower

The optimum height of the proscenium arch is around ten metres. This opening determines the height of the stage sets carried on the wagons and therefore the height of the auxiliary scenery bays. The height of the theatre’s gridiron – the open structure situated above the stage used for hanging curtains and lights – is also determined by the proscenium arch. In order to be able to hang curtains or lighting bars for several productions as required by alternate performances, and in order to hang the black borders hiding the flying tower itself, the gridiron had to be situated at a height of 30 metres.

Located above the gridiron, with a double soundproofed floor and spring mountings to eliminate vibrations, is the motor room that tops the flying tower at a height of 33 metres above the stage. This soundproofed room houses all of the motors used for raising and lowering scenery. There are three types of units: bars, spaced at 25 cm and running parallel to the proscenium, fixed strips, spaced in parallel bands at 1.5 metres, and free strips, allowing scenery to be hung at any point on the stage.

This whole system of motors is connected to a control panel to permit the simultaneous movement of the scenery required for each sequence of an opera production. Imperceptible movement, inverse movements of other elements, and high speed movements; all these possibilities are available for use in opera productions and open the door to concepts that would previously have been unattainable.

Above the motor room, the zinc roof with its two moderate slopes tops the flying tower at a height of 38 metres, constituting the visible line of the cornice. The roof of the flying tower slopes towards the stage rehearsal room located over the reconstructed auditorium

Opera houses have main visible bodies, i.e. the flying tower and the auditorium. Traditionally, there are two ways of dealing with this basic stage-auditorium tandem in opera houses. One is to differentiate and separate the two volumes in spite of their proximity. This is the case with the Opéra Garnier in Paris, where the stage is treated as a Greek Temple and the auditorium is capped with a Baroque cupola. The other option is to combine the two elements into a single body with no differentiation. This is the solution used in the Staatsoper in Vienna.

The roof of the Gran Teatre del Liceu is a blend of the two options. The different bodies are differentiated, but the zinc roof covers both, finishing at the horseshoe-shaped outer wall of the auditorium.

Power Plant

However, the flying tower is not the only structure extending above the roof line. The air conditioning equipment for the whole building and the emergency generators are located in a separate, closed compartment, supported on eight groups of springs that prevent vibrations from being transmitted to the rest of the building. This was the solution adopted to position an ensemble of machinery that, in view of the size and function of the building, was unavoidably bulky.

Technology at the Service of the Stage

Performances of opera productions cannot be offered solely for the benefit of the house audience. The growing need for recording and broadcast of performances means that stages must allow for such activities. The new Gran Teatre del Liceu is no exception and the design of the stage and reconstruction of the auditorium have been carried out taking into consideration all needs in connection with lighting, acoustics and placement of television cameras for the recording and broadcast of performances before full audiences.

Up to date stage and broadcast technology had to be present and occupy a predominant position in the project for reconstruction and expansion of the Gran Teatre del Liceu.