It’s an interesting scenario because of the expectations of audiences when they come to live opera. It’s not like watching a film. It’s more three dimensional. You’re using the dimensions of the stage, you’re using space and time, all of these things. So with sound design it means ultimately to create, transparently, the sound world of the composer’s intention.”
Mark GreySound Designer
With this past summer’s acclaimed production by the Santa Fe Opera, 73 years after the first blinding nuclear detonation, Dr. Atomic finally came home. This 2005 contemporary opera by composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars centers on the inner turmoil of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer as he headed development of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos Laboratories, situated barely 20 miles from the opera’s Crosby Theatre. In order to create a three-dimensional soundscape for the production — deftly balancing natural-sounding singing with full orchestration and evocative sound effects — eminent sound designer Mark Grey specified an augmented Meyer Sound loudspeaker system based around four CAL column array loudspeakers that had been recently installed at the theatre.
Sound design and system configuration in the semi-open-air Crosby Theatre entailed multiple challenges. Both Adams and Sellars — the latter also directing — preferred a singing style that was subtle and intimate, contrasting with the more forceful projection of classic opera. That certainly would demand amplification in the 2,100-seat venue, but at the same time opera management was reluctant to impinge on the sleek architecture with large line arrays while potentially arousing misgivings among traditional opera purists. Further complicating matters was the theatre’s roof, which was intentionally designed as a reflective surface to bolster unamplified productions. The agreed solution, for both Dr. Atomic and similar future productions, was a permanent installation of Meyer Sound CAL 64 and CAL 32 column array loudspeakers, one of each per side.
“The Meyer Sound CAL loudspeakers appealed to us because they uniquely offered superior sound quality in a low profile,” says Karl Kern, audio-visual director for the Santa Fe Opera. “We could benefit from the advanced digital beam steering without having a large line array hanging in our space. Beam steering enabled us to create zones in the theatre to have evenly focused sound energy throughout the audience without having high overall SPL.”
According to Mark Grey, the Meyer Sound loudspeakers proved to be an indispensable component in advancing Adams’ and Sellars’ redefinition of the opera experience for 21st century audiences.
“Over the 30 years I’ve been working with John and Peter we’ve formed a tight bond regarding what the presentation will be like on stage,” says Grey. “It’s an interesting scenario because of the expectations of audiences when they come to live opera. It’s not like watching a film. It’s more three dimensional. You’re using the dimensions of the stage, you’re using space and time, all of these things. So with sound design it means ultimately to create, transparently, the sound world of the composer’s intention.”
One unique problem confronting the sound team at Santa Fe was the open air theatre, which has a reflective roof but no side walls for placement of surround loudspeakers for the ambient effects of the sound design.
“We worked closely with Meyer Sound’s design services to come up with a solution that would provide the power and accuracy but still be unobtrusive,” says Karl Kern, “and they came up with the ideal solution. We mounted two UPJ-1P loudspeakers on the truss towers, set on the patios to each side, and they worked perfectly.”
In addition to the four CAL digital beam steering loudspeakers, the new permanent Meyer Sound system at Santa Fe Opera includes two 900‑LFC low frequency control elements, six UP-4XP compact loudspeakers for front fill, a UPJ-1XP center fill loudspeaker, and a GALAXY 816 network platform for loudspeaker processing.
For the special requirements of Dr. Atomic, Grey also specified the four UPJ-1P side surrounds, four of the new UP‑4slim loudspeakers as rear surrounds, and six M1D loudspeakers as supplementary front fill loudspeakers.
Despite the unusual demands of the production and challenges presented by the venue, Karl Kern says the system design, configuration, and installation was remarkably trouble-free. “Throughout the process we found that Meyer Sound provides excellent customer service,” he says. “The process of working with them from initial loudspeaker demos through final installation has been seamless.”
Meyer Sound CAL column array loudspeakers provide a unique combination of robust power, beam-steering versatility, transparent musicality and discreet appearance. CAL loudspeakers are equally at home in NFL stadiums (Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium), world-class concert halls (Vienna’s Musicverein) and historic houses of worship (Monaco Cathedral).
For capturing voices on stage for Dr. Atomic, Kern relied on a 30-channel Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid wireless system equipped with DPA d:screet 4061 omnidirectional miniature microphones.
The Santa Fe Opera campus occupies a hilltop on the northern outskirts of the city with sweeping views of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Founded in 1956 by conductor John Crosby, for whom the theatre is named, the Santa Fe Opera is known internationally for introducing new operas as well as presenting traditional repertoire. Since inception, Santa Fe Opera has staged 43 American premieres and 15 world premieres.