Broadway on the Bodensee


Sound designers for large musicals typically have plenty of challenges: not enough time allocated for sound rehearsal, automated lights that sound like jet engines, inconsistent singers and musicians, and wireless mics that are (unfortunately) governed by the laws of physics. To that, let's add a playing area approximately 215' across and 200' deep, where the average distance from a performer to an audience member is about 150'. Next, add a mandate that speakers cannot be seen. Now let's add to that mix noise from an adjacent highway and train line, and the housing of the orchestra and chorus in a concrete bunker beneath the stage. Finally, let's put the stage in a lake with the audience sitting on the shore.

These are the challenges faced by sound designer Wolfgang Fritz and his team at the Bregenzerfestspiele in Austria for the current production of West Side Story. The town of Bregenz is situated on a band of westernmost Austria that reaches out to the shores of Lake Constance (the Bodensee) between Germany to the north, and Switzerland to the south. The legendary festival, in operation since 1946, is known around the world for its striking “Bregenz dramaturgy,” where the story of the show is literally manifested in massive sculptural scenic designs visible to all from the shores of the lake. The sets are built using standard building construction techniques to play for two consecutive summer seasons (and also survive the Austrian winter).

Wolfgang Fritz's work, however, is less well known outside of sound design circles, so on my trip to Europe this past summer, I made a pilgrimage to Bregenz, and Peter Geiger, who directs the localization for the productions and has worked with Fritz for many years, graciously spent several hours with me explaining the details of the mammoth and complex system. At the time of my visit, Fritz was working at the other end of Austria on another lakeside festival, but I was later able to get in touch with him via email.

In addition to his regular job as head of sound at the Vienna Staatsoper, Fritz has worked the summer festival at Bregenz for 34 years. He is also the sound designer for the summer lakefront Seefestspiele Mörbisch in eastern Austria, and designed sound for the massive outdoor production of Turandot in the Forbidden City of Beijing in 1998.

Monumental is a word that cannot be overused when talking about the productions at Bregenz. Approximately 7000 people fill the seats for 28 performances throughout July and August, and performances are almost always sold out (even with ticket prices running up to 125 Euros). The festival has an annual budget of over 17 million euros, and the main shows of the festival take place on the “world's largest floating stage.” While referred to as “floating”, the stage today is a permanent structure supported on pilings driven into the bottom of the crystal-clear lake (originally, the festival took place on two gravel barges, hence the term floating). Being outdoors, weather is always a factor, and when necessary, rained-out performances are moved in just a few minutes to an adjacent concert hall (fortunately for the crew, the weather was good for every performance in the 2003 season and all performances were held outdoors).

The festival often does opera, but, for this two-season 2003-2004 cycle, chose the classic American musical West Side Story. The production was directed by Francesca Zambello, with sets by George Tsypin, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting by James F. Ingalls. Due to the massive scale of sets at Bregenz, and the construction lead time required, the design process starts years in advance of opening night. Tsypin's proposed deconstructed New York set was submitted in July 2001, and, after the tragedy of September 11th, the team faced some tough decisions about how to proceed. But proceed they did, and the designs are spectacular (see sidebar, page 13). The show's songs are sung in the original English, while the dialogue is spoken in German. To a New Yorker's ears, it's quite strange to hear German singers singing English in a Puerto Rican accent; but it works nonetheless. Music for the production is provided by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, but the audience would be hard pressed to tell this except for those who might see musicians carrying instruments across the bridge that leads to the bunker-like orchestra room beneath the mammoth stage. Also in this under-stage bunker is the Moscow Chamber Choir, which provides sung accompaniment to back up the performers onstage when needed.

On a stage this massive, having a singer's voice appear to come from, or “localize to” the singer is incredibly important, and Fritz takes the localization of sound as seriously as the more typical sound design issues of mix, balance, and coloration. It is critical, says Fritz, “to see and to hear all artists, musicians and groups from their position on the stage.” But when there are no loudspeakers near a singer, this can create enormous challenges, especially when covering an audience of 7,000. When Fritz and his team evaluate preliminary set designs, they start a process of negotiation for speaker placement, under the current artistic mandate that speakers must not be seen. (There is some indication that this edict may be relaxed in the future.) Fritz says, “I need speakers on many positions in the set. For all new productions it is a big fight to find positions and ways to have speakers on good positions for sound. West Side Story is very hard for sound because the scenery is too wide and there are not enough places for speakers in a good position.” On West Side Story, Fritz successfully negotiated to have part of the set — the “acoustic wave unit” — changed to accommodate a better speaker position stage left.

Since the performers, of course, move all over the massive set, Fritz also feels it's very important that, “If someone moves, the sound has to follow.” To achieve this goal, Fritz uses a custom localization control system that controls the delay times, level and routing to every speaker on stage in a dynamic way; presets are then executed at appropriate times. For West Side Story, with its extensive dialogue sections and widely spaced performance locations, trained ears will likely notice the localization shifts in the performance. However, this is likely unnoticed amongst the vast majority of the audience, and certainly is even more effective with more traditional operatic staging (with less movement, especially when singing).

Once Fritz has battled successfully to get speakers as close as possible to the acting areas, he breaks the stage up into zones, and there are 12 zones for West Side Story. Then, of course, the team has to continually confront the ever-present danger of feedback caused by the close proximity of the speakers, and the necessary use of omni-directional mics, onstage monitors, etc. For each location, Fritz designates the placement of a variety of speakers (mostly JBL and Kling & Freitag with some d&b and Meyer). The speakers are accommodated as much as possible into the set design, and are camouflaged so well that even the trained eye will have difficulty locating them visually on stage. All the speakers, of course, have to be weatherproofed, and some of the speakers and zones are built into permanent structures on the stage such as the more than 80-foot high tower topped by Manhattan. Others are built into the moving drugstore and the multi-function “brick house” scenic units. These mammoth units track on and off stage, and, in the case of the brick house, track on and off stage on a curved track and rotate. In addition to the zone speakers onstage, Fritz has a number of surround speakers around and behind the audience; these are used for pre-show announcements and to add a bit of hall-like reverb for the audience (in the Mörbisch festival, Fritz has incorporated the LARES enhancement system for this purpose).

Driving all these speakers are a huge number of mostly JBL and TOA amplifiers, located in a permanent room in the concrete section of the stage, and also in the main control room behind the audience. Driving these amps are more than 50 stereo delay units by BSS, AKG, Dynacord, and TOA, and a custom-made Dynamatrix analog routing matrix unit made by the now-defunct Maxxom. Maxxom also supplied the custom-made Audio Direction Mixer, which allows any of 16 channels to be localized anywhere on the stage either through live control, or through the recalling of presets. (This matrix system is due for replacement with a dual Yamaha DME 32 system — one main, one backup — for the 2004 season). This direction mixer also handles muting and the recalling of presets on the main console, and can also can trigger sound effects from an Akai DD1000.

Fritz has been persuasive in getting a powerful digital system designed and adopted-the TOA ix-9000 digital mixing system, the first of which was installed in the Vienna State Opera in 1990. Only a handful of these TOA systems exist in the world: two in Vienna, two in Mörbisch, and one in Bregenz. While digital consoles with separate digital control surfaces are commonplace today, the ix-9000 was one of the pioneers in the field. For this production, however, the 68 input ix-9000 does not provide enough inputs, so a 32-channel Allen and Heath GL-4000 was added to sub-mix the orchestra, and a 32-channel Soundcraft Ghost was added to submix the chorus.

A wide variety of AKG microphones are used to cover the orchestra, while the cast onstage is covered using 48 Sennheiser SK-50 transmitters. Key performers for this production have two microphones — one AKG C477 headset, and one Sennheiser MKE 2 omni lavalier. Each member of the chorus is fitted with an individual headset mic built up on a Sennheiser MKE element.

In addition to the main system (all of which is owned by the festival and its various partners), a complete Soundcraft Europa analog backup mixer is in place, and through routing switchers can take over in case of a failure of the digital systems. Extensive audio foldback and audio and video monitoring systems are also provided to the stage, to the understage orchestra/chorus area, and the backstage areas. In the pit, the chorus actually faces the conductor's back; so even this setup required video monitoring.

A show this complex takes a sound and video crew of 11 for each performance. One engineer takes on the main mixing duties; one engineer handles the “direction mixing” and mic muting; one crew member is responsible for technical supervision and stands by in the control facility in case of a problem; and one additional technician is standing by as a backup. A crew of four deals with the wired and wireless mics, while one technician handles video supervision and another operates a close-up camera to give the conductor specific images of the stage when needed. Finally, one technician sets up the indoor systems and stands by in case the show needs to be moved due to inclement weather.

Fritz says that one of his design goals is that it's “best if you don't hear the working amplification — the sound has to be as natural as possible.” Given the enormous constraints involved in a production such as this, Fritz and his team have come about as close to this goal as possible with the current technological state of the art. And given Fritz's track record, new innovations are as likely to be found here as anywhere else in the world. Seats are available for the 2004 summer season; get your tickets now to see (and hear) what you've been missing.