San Diego's La Boheme, Part I: Arias On The Airwaves

(La Bohème, San Diego Opera, photo by Karli Cadel)

In late October/early November, San Diego Opera presented La Bohème in the parking lot at Pechanga Arena San Diego, inviting their audience to "Leave Your World In The Rearview Mirror," and enjoy opera at the drive-in, while ensuring everyone’s safety and security. The sound, designed by Ross Goldman of Event Wave Productions, was transmitted to car stereos via FM radio as large video screens presented I-Mag of the opera on stage.

"Event Wave also designed another drive-in event, Mainly Mozart, last summer," says Goldman. "The San Diego Opera's general director, David Bennett, had attended this classical music program, and we debated having a full sound system or an FM radio system for La Bohème. He preferred the FM option, which gave us more control and more consistency. There was parking for 500 cars, which was amazing, but a PA system would have been prohibitive in such a large outdoor space."

Goldman reports that the creative team watched rehearsals from their cars, using a wireless intercom system to communicate among themselves. "The audio was more like a broadcast," says Goldman, "using an isolated trailer, and mixed as if for TV or the radio rather than for a live show." He notes that this was "a creative gift," giving him total control, especially in terms of balance between the orchestra and the voices." Something you can't always control in an opera house.

"Everyone in the trailer wore masks," adds Goldman, explaining that the 24-piece orchestra was located on a second stage, under a tent, away from the main stage, with a monitor system so they could hear each other and the right mix of what they needed to hear." The string players were all masked, as were the percussion and conductor, while there were plexiglass enclosures around the wind and brass instruments, which for obvious reasons, the musicians could not be masked.

The loudspeaker/monitor system comprised L'Acoustics co-axial line with 5" cubes to X12's on the stage for the singers. The console was a Yamaha CL1. "We needed a small console as we were working in a 12' x 12' space, and this one allowed us to hone the processing." Sound effects playback and routing were handled by Figure 53’s QLab, controlled via MIDI by the Yamaha CL1.

"All of the singers had double-mics as once they entered the stage they never left," notes Goldman. "There was no way to fix or replace a microphone." All of the mics were hidden under wigs or hats as in the theatre, so they wouldn't be obvious in the I-Mag, and as Goldman points out, "the sound department interacted with wigs and make-up to place the microphones, as they were already touching the singers."

The biggest challenge for Goldman was "taking an art not meant to be amplified or an electronically mediated with sound reinforcement, and in this case it is 100% modified through a sound system. So the question is what the audience hears and what the singers and orchestras hear of each other, especially in a parking lot with street noise and air traffic."

For Goldman, the goal was to "make the best of a strange acoustic environment. We were grateful that the opera trusted us to do this and they were very supportive, and we knew the success of the production depended on the sound. We were not looking to make the singer louder but answer the question of how to best get the sound into the cars. For me, this was an incredible opportunity, with a union crew that hadn't worked in seven months. They came back without missing a beat, that was the most rewarding, getting the crew and the designers together."

A success? Yes, and the press was in agreement, calling it a “logistical and artistic triumph” in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Ultimately this La Bohème was a pandemic pivot of traditional opera with 21st-century technology.

More on the sound design by Event Wave Productions.

Stay tuned for Live Design's coverage of the lighting and video for La Bohème.

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