“They all left with smiles on their faces”

Playing in a car park as a corona-compliant alternative to the ensemble’s regular base in the London Coliseum, this production had all the fun of outdoor cinema, was hugely entertaining but tricky to prepare: the English National Opera’s drive-in version of Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’.

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

Some 100 vehicles are carefully directed to their places, like cars on a ferry. Tickets for the smallest-category cars cost £100 but can carry as many passengers as the model of car and the corona regulations allow. Cyclists pay the least: £35 to sit cosily in the front row on deck chairs and yoga mats.

At the side of the car park in London’s Alexandra Park, as well as a catering van serving ice cream, coffee, and cold drinks, are the mobile toilets. These are no ordinary plastic porta-loos but proper cabins with sinks.

“Oh yes, the loos,” say production manager Adriano Agostino. “They’re fancy alright – but even the luxury version gets blocked sometimes.” Agostino knows exactly how to put the creatives’ ideas into logistical practice and keep an eye on the budget at the same time. He normally does that in the theatre where everything is under one roof. “In this case I had to start from scratch. We didn’t have anything, partly because of Covid: no crew, no transport system, no infrastructure at all.”

The corona prevention measures in the car park are certainly strict – stricter than usual. Despite the heat, car windows may only be opened on the driver’s side; soft-top cars must keep their roofs down. Walking around is to be strictly avoided. Anyone who nevertheless goes to get a drink (and consequently to the toilet) must wear a mask outside their vehicle.

For their technology needs, the ENO got ADI.tv on board. Specialists in fitting LED screens, here the company assumed all responsibilities, including the stage, light and liaising with Sky Arts for the recording. David Crowther, Head of Technical Solutions at ADI.tv, says he has been doing back-to-back drive-ins this year. “But a drive-in with the sound quality required by opera is a first for us, too.”

Sound designer Ian Dearden had initially envisaged a WiFi-based solution: an app that the audience could download on to their mobile phones or tablets to get perfect stereo sound via their headphones. But the dream was frustrated by practical concerns. “I could just imagine the army of helpers at the car windows,” Crowther laughs. “Loads of desperate audience members who hadn’t downloaded the app or whose devices weren’t compatible.” So, they opted for the “robust version”, transmitting the sound to the car radios in the classic way, via FM broadcasting.

In addition, high-performance speakers are installed all around the car park – otherwise the cyclists and other audience members without radios would be lost. “In the end we got a good result with a 5.1 sound system. Of course, we were worried about the latencies. I kept walking the length and breadth of the car park during rehearsals to see if there were any dead spots. Overall, we were surprised how well it worked.”

Good views are ensured by the raised stage. Various sightlines were calculated to work out the optimal height: 2.5 metres above the ground. Two large screens above the wings show all kinds of videos before the performance begins – interviews with musicians, for example, and a short documentary about the physiognomy and workings of an opera singer’s larynx. That gives viewers time to set up their radios and get accustomed to the arrangement.

A key feature of the production, directed by PJ Harris, is the mirroring of the drive-in character on the stage. Here, the eponymous bohemians are shacked up in three campervans. Musetta and her lover zoom along in a smart cabriolet, and there is even a stage version of the catering van. The Café Momus of the libretto appears as a mobile burger bar. Crowther grins. “We gulped when the team of directors told us that they wanted three four-ton vehicles trundling over the stage.” First, they needed to devise the ramps before they could work out precisely which model vehicles to use. “You really need to know how much space there is under the chassis to avoid problems,” says Agostino. “They mustn’t touch the floor when they drive up on the stage and the front mustn’t scrape the ground when they come down. And how much space do they need to turn round? The good-old VW bus needs about 11 metres. We worked it all out on paper – only to find that in practice the vehicles never moved in at the right angle to the tension wires securing the stage. So, technicians always needed to be on hand to manually help the cars come through.”

In the end the ramps that lead from the wings down towards the centre were built with a rake of 1:6. Entrances and exits are made through the car park where the audience is seated. They obviously enjoy this immersive aspect. Theoretically anyone could turn on their engine and zoom up on to the stage, couldn’t they? Crowther considers this: “The ramps are harder to navigate than you think; we definitely needed to rehearse it. And I am still surprised that the drivers managed to do it in every show.”

The orchestra is scattered across a two-storey gantry-stage above the playing area. The conductor is raised per lift to an intermediate level, where the musicians on both storeys can see him well. As the singers, below and behind him, cannot make eye contact, they work with monitors.

To prepare the run of 15 performances, the team had two weeks in the ENO premises and a good week on site: three days to build the set, four to rehearse – acoustics in the morning, technical rehearsals at midday and lighting in the evening. Three nights were sadly cancelled due to a storm. “When a West End show is cancelled, people are usually glad to get a night off. But right now, everyone really wants to work. It was tough after all the cancellations due to Corona to be snookered by the weather, too,” says Crowther. Agostino nods in agreement. “Still, I’ve been working on events like this for 23 years. Sometimes it all runs smoothly but the atmosphere isn’t right, the people plod out. Here they all left with smiles on their faces.”

And the budget? “Normally I’m only responsible for scenery, props and costumes; I had £50,000 for that. But here, of course, there was all the logistics and technology as well. In the end it came to something between £350,000 and £400,000,” says Agostino.


BTR Ausgabe 6 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 136
von Wiebke Roloff Halsey

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