Blue at the open-air Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre

The Covid-19 pandemic saw the Michigan Opera Theatre presenting programmes fron alternative spaces, including the Detroit Opera House parking garage, among other non-traditional venues. And for one weekend in September, staged Blue, a contemporary American opera by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, at the city’s open-air Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre.

Blue is about a young, black couple raising a son in modern-day Harlem and their struggles with police brutality. With its all-black cast, the opera is part celebration, part tragedy, and a timely and highly relevant work. Tying it all together was the production’s implementation of L-Acoustics L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound.

‘When I was thinking about sound for this piece, I was thinking, how do we maintain the intimacy of the story and still convey the sweeping arc of big ideas – like confronting God, the state, history, and violence?’ recalls Director Kaneza Schaal, who worked with Michigan Opera Theatre’s Gary L Wasserman Artistic Director Yuval Sharon.

‘This piece was made to be performed in a traditional opera space, but here at the open-air Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, it’s a very different proposition. So, it was essential to bring on collaborators who could help us represent both the intimacy and the sweeping grandness of this story. The collaboration with L-Acoustics is the backbone of what made this possible. What L-ISA technology did was allow us to have a more embodied experience between the stage and the audience.’

Blue at the open-air Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre‘Opera is typically performed in acoustically-optimised venues requiring no amplification, truly demonstrating the beauty and full range of the human voice, from barely a whisper to the loudest possible utterance,’ Sharon agrees. ‘To recreate that on a stage like the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre was an enormous challenge because we wanted to make sure it didn’t just feel like a rock and roll show, where everything is loud and forward. We still wanted our audience to experience nuance and subtlety, as well as to get a sense of the sound creating space.

‘Having the sound travel and follow the singers was a crucial benefit of using L-ISA technology for Blue. With it, the ears of our audience members helped direct their eyes to where the singers were on stage, the very same way it would happen in an opera house. It was a subtle effect, but without it, there would be so much that was lost from the experience. L-ISA really helped ensure that the depth and full spectrum of what this piece is about was able to be best communicated to the audience.’

With Thunder Audio supplying most of the sound reinforcement, the full 17.1 surround configuration for Blue comprised seven arrays of eight L-Acoustics Kiva II each flown across the stage, plus ten Syva enclosures as surrounds. These were complemented by seven X8 coaxials spread across the stage lip for front fill, plus four KS21 subs for low-end. The system was served by a DiGiCo SD10 mixing console at FOH via a DeskLink connection.

The arrays themselves were positioned using L-Acoustics Soundvision predictive software to set the acoustical stage and avoid intelligibility-damaging reflections. ‘One of the big challenges was working in a covered outdoor arena versus a more controlled environment like an opera house,’ explains L-Acoustics Applications Engineer, Jordan Tani, who collaborated with both Carlos Mosquera and Marcus Ross, also of L-Acoustics, on the system design, set-up and operation.

‘There are a lot of reflections in this venue, and Soundvision can accurately predict what’s going to happen in the space. We were able to establish the acoustics geometry for the audience perspective and to make sure that we had the proper coverage for the entire venue.’

‘Carpenters were loading in, and they hit something with a hammer, and we heard it echo three times,’ Blue FOH engineer Stephanie Farina recounts. ‘That’s a challenge for any system, but especially for opera or musical theatre, where it’s all about intelligibility and clarity. The audience needs to be able to clearly hear the story to understand the performance.’

Farina found that, while mixing with L-ISA, the combination of a well-deployed speaker system and the ability to connect speech to individual actors as they moved about the stage was artistically and technically transformative.

‘What is neat about L-ISA is that because it’s localising the voices, we’re able to push the system a little less, which causes fewer reflections and, in turn, gives us that needed intelligibility and clarity. The audience is right there with the actors.’ she says.

‘And what L-ISA does for the music – a masterful score by theatrical composer Jeanine Tesori and conducted by Daniela Candelari – was just as amazing,’ she adds. ‘We had a 30-piece orchestra jammed into a 20ft-by-20ft space, and L-ISA was actually able to widen them out and make them sound so much larger than they were, all the way to the back of a 6,000-seat venue.’

‘There’s definitely a lot of value in using immersive audio for powerful operatic storytelling and art,’ Tani adds. ‘To be able to give space for both the orchestra and the singers,’ he observes. ‘It allows the music to really breathe. That’s the value of L-ISA: it takes a work of art that’s deeply intimate and very emotional, bringing it fully to life in three dimensions.’


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