The Santa Fe Opera re-imagines 400 year old opera with Lectrosonics

The Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Orfeo, by composer Claudio Monteverdi, takes a modern approach with a new orchestration by Nico Muhly as well as “otherworldly” vocal and reverberant effects placed in 3D surround space, above and around the audience, by Sound Designer Mark Grey. This, despite the work itself dating back to 1607 – one of the world’s very oldest known operas.

To achieve this reimagining of an ancient masterpiece, Grey teamed up with the Opera’s audio/visual director, Cooper Adams, as well as audio engineer Abbey Nettleton and implemented their vision using 14 channels of Lectrosonics SSM belt pack transmitters and Venue2 receivers.

In addition to being an Emmy award-winning sound designer, Grey is also a composer in his own right. Cooper Adams’s first taste of sound engineering came in middle and high school productions; he started at the Santa Fe Opera as a technical apprentice seven years ago.

This is Nettleton’s first year in her position, and her introduction to audio engineering came at age 16, doing sound for her high school’s theatre productions. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Sound Design and Technology at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

All three gave their thoughts on realising this new twist on a more than 400-year-old opera using state-of-the-art wireless mic technology from Lectrosonics:

What is different about this production of Orfeo?

MG: A piece like Orfeo, the original orchestration — you have the continuo group, a core set of musicians who would set the recitatives, the harmonic language and rhythm of the scenes, and there’s light orchestration, with strings and early brass instruments that weren’t overly loud. In Nico’s new orchestration, like Wagner using leitmotifs, he uses orchestral colours paired to each of the characters. For example, when Orfeo sings, there would be a certain instrumentation associated with him.

That’s the basis of how musical timbre and orchestration supports the development of the characters. The colour in the orchestra associated with each character evolves over time as the opera delves more into their minds. So, when Orfeo descends into Hades (to rescue his dead beloved bride Eurydice), the orchestration becomes very different, yet it still retains some of the original shape.

I think Nico has achieved a 21st Century adaptation of that approach. He used strings and woodwinds, though woodwinds weren’t really a part of the original Orfeo ensemble. It looks like he’s using woodwinds as the continuo, and there are eight or nine contemporary brass instruments — French horns, trumpets, trombones — and they’re much louder than the original brass, like sackbuts.

CA: We have 14 loudspeakers in the house to accommodate the surround system. Normally, we have four. Mark Grey did a great job making it sound very engaging.

we’re pushing the boundaries until we reach the point where we’re in the underworld.

Traditionally, opera is done 100% acoustically. What about this work requires using wireless mics?

MG: The tradition of opera didn’t have sound reinforcement back in the day. They built venues and set pieces with flat surfaces to create intimacy. By the mid-1800s, larger operas, though still in our sense “traditional,” developed in larger houses, with orchestrations that were denser. The voice type started to change, and we saw the heroic tenor, Wagnerian voices, and such come about to get over the density of the orchestra.

While Nico was writing, Yuval thought it would be desirable to have some light reinforcement on the singers. It was also decided to explore using processing on the voices. Not so much dynamic processing, but effects. Like time delays, tap delays, reverberation, etc. Yuval wants, in Act II when the characters go down in Hades, the sound world to radically change. 

I got into the space and started experimenting with the processing, like reverberation coming from the surround sound, and key roles sung or spoken from offstage. And even some pre-recorded voices. Yuval decided on integration of three worlds: the live voice, the processed voices with otherworldly effects, and voices that are either pre-recorded or coming from offstage. So, we need continuity among the three worlds.

CA: The Santa Fe Opera prides itself on its acoustical availability while still being an opera venue, though with fewer reflective surfaces. With Orfeo they were looking to have more effects, making characters sound more ethereal. And there’s a moment where they have to sound like they’re coming through a record player.

Those moments require wireless microphones. We purchased this wonderful Lectrosonics wireless system, and we often do some form of wireless miking, but this is a big usage with 14 channels. They’re primarily for effects, but we’re also rigging some performers in acrobatic harnesses, and we wanted to give them support. In recent years we have used Lectro wireless for productions of Doctor Atomic, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and most recently, The Lord of Cries.

AN: Traditionally opera is ambient, but we’re just pushing the boundaries until we reach the point where we’re in the underworld, and we push harder using vocal effects and reverb.

The Lectrosonics products are like little tanks.

What other artistic choices are made available by using Lectrosonics wireless?

MG: I’ve done Doctor Atomic and The Lord of Cries at Santa Fe. Those are good examples of hyper-realistic reinforcement, using Lectrosonics wireless microphones on the cast to create a subtle experience for the audience, where they don’t always have to lean forward. Drama is quite often linked with language, and a clear and natural representation of the voice can go a long way in that audience’s journey.

We’re using the SSM belt packs. They have excellent dynamic range, keeping the noise floor down, making it much easier to match the live and recorded voices.

At the Santa Fe Opera, which has a whole row of front fills, I like to use small line array elements because they’re very narrow on the vertical dispersion, like 10 degrees, so they fire over the pit and don’t spray the conductor with sound. 

It helps create, at least for the first ten rows, the feeling that the sound is locked to the performer, that it’s coming from the stage instead of the flown line arrays. There’s actually enough reflection within the Crosby Theatre that we could turn off the main PA and the opera would still be heard fairly well from just the front fills.

CA: The Lectrosonics products are like little tanks. I’ve always been extremely impressed with the quality of the products. Lectrosonics also offers silicone jackets for the transmitters, which are important because in this production at one point the characters are in a mist, essentially enveloped in rain onstage.”

Lectrosonics is an extremely elegant product, which is not a term I would use for many pieces of AV equipment!

How many Lectrosonics wireless channels are you using for this production?

AN: The 14 principal singers have wireless mics while the chorus members are covered with area mics or not at all.

MG: Thirteen channels are on characters who are onstage and sometimes offstage. The fourteenth is on a character who is only offstage. We also have wired microphones offstage. We’re using DPA 4061 mics on the SSM belt packs.

What challenges do you face in the venue that the Lectrosonics systems help you solve?

AN: There’s a lot of wind. The theatre is pretty well protected because it has wind baffles on one side, but when the [back of stage] doors are open, we’re battling the sounds of outside when we’re trying to maintain a balance. It’s really helped with trying to maintain a natural sound in the space.

With Lectrosonics there’s just a really clean signal and sound anywhere that we need them to be. We have such a huge space, and we have some people singing offstage with their wireless packs who are as far away from the receiving antennas as possible, but the range of the packs has allowed us to expand where we’re going, so every area of the stage is covered. 

We use two directional helical antennas with the 14 channels of diversity receivers. One antenna is up behind the stage on the half roof pointed down, and the other is on stage right aimed across the stage.

CA: We don’t normally intend to be a miked house, but with the Lectrosonics products, we were able to use the tiny SSM transmitters that could be tucked anywhere, and they work great with a variety of microphones.

Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of RF issues out here, but the Wireless Designer software is great for scanning for potential problems, and the Venue 2 receivers are just fantastic. The modularity of the system is really useful, too. I’ve always been extremely impressed with the quality of Lectrosonics products.

When and how did you first hear about Lectrosonics?

CA: In 2016, my apprentice year at the Santa Fe Opera. We had two Lectrosonics racks in an area we call “Wireless World.” My predecessor would take us every year to tour the Lectrosonics factory for about an hour and meet Karl Winkler. Ever since then I’ve been a big fan.

They’re very luxurious products but they work so well! I’ve worked in musicals and in opera, and it seems that in opera we want ever smaller packs. Lectrosonics is perfect for that because they’re so tiny.

I would say that Lectrosonics is an extremely elegant product, which is not a term I would use for many pieces of AV equipment! They accomplish their goal in a very nice-looking package. Visiting their factory, I get to see how they’re made; they’re definitely an American product! We will absolutely continue using Lectrosonics.