Musical Chairs

Den Norske Opera's new home on the waterfront in Oslo, the Operaen, has a silhouette as startling as Sydney's iconic opera house, but while Opera Australia performs on the water, Norwegian National Opera performs over and under the water.

Just under half of the new $300-million opera house lies below sea level in Oslo's harbor, so the structure was designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta AS to withstand this additional stress on the structure, as well as any stray shipping that happens to pass. To the south of the building, a ship barrier was anchored to the bed of the fjord and rises to about 6½' beneath the surface to stop large tankers and cruise ships from accidentally drifting into the building.

Theatre Projects London acted as consultants both in the initial stages of the competition for the design and on the two performance spaces at the opera house once Snøhetta had been awarded the commission. Theatre Projects' technical director Alan G. Russell notes, “The Sydney Opera House famously started the trend of building landmark arts projects at the water's edge, but it was also an unfortunate example of a project designed from the outside in, where the opera house and concert hall had to be shoehorned into what was a magnificent but unsympathetic shell.”

From the outside, the structure in Oslo has an unconventional profile with a white Carrara marble roof that slopes down into the harbor like a ski slope, creating a beach-like public area for opera-goers and non-ticket holders alike. The inside of the building is much more conventional, what Russell calls “a model of collaboration between form and function,” adding that “the theatres and other critical spaces [were] designed in detail from the inside out, without major constraints.”

Mark Stroomer, design director for Theatre Projects, describes the main hall as “a traditional horseshoe form, very northern European.” The auditorium seats around 1,350 in the stalls and three balconies, and each seat back has an individual screen for subtitles available in eight languages. “The audience is quite vertical, which adds to the excitement, but we tried to keep the furthest seat no more than 30 or 32 meters away from the stage,” Stroomer says.

The smaller theatre, which will be used primarily but not exclusively by the resident ballet company, required a little more flexibility than the usual black box space. “We have designed many flexible spaces, but this was particularly challenging as, in addition to the need for substantial seating flexibility, the brief required a large orchestra pit and a 52'-deep stage for dance.” To enable the space to be used with a flat floor configuration as well as with a raised stage, Theatre Projects used two lifts manufactured by Bosch Rexroth AG and TECO Pneumatic, Inc. to create a raked performance platform and orchestra pit. Seating for about 400 was created on wagons, also by Bosch Rexroth and Teco, with seats by Poltrona Frau.

Each wagon holds about 24 seats and can be moved manually around the space, Stroomer says. “The twist to this is that we can change the height as well as the position of each row,” thereby creating tiered seating that can be arranged in the round, another configuration, or stored beneath the auditorium. Brekker Strand Arup of Oslo provided acoustic services, and Theatre Projects worked with Norwegian Opera through the process of equipping the theatres.

“In a project of this importance, it is necessary to have a broad range of equipment on hand to satisfy the many designers and directors who will be fortunate enough to work in this house,” says Russell. The overall lighting package was awarded to Elpag AS. Norwegian Opera chose the ETC Congo board for control, and Robert Juliat, ADB, Martin, Selecon, and other manufacturers are also represented. Russell says, “It was agreed to use sinewave dimmer technology in order to eliminate problems of harmonics from conventional dimmers, and Strand won that order.”

The Operaen is Norway's first purpose-built opera house and is a deliberate, forward-looking statement that Oslo is committed to rejuvenating the harbor area where it is located. But despite the futuristic exterior, the interior also evokes its Scandinavian heritage. A massive, Baltic oak interior wall divides public and performance spaces, and balcony fronts were hand-carved by boat builders from the Norwegian coast.

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