Out of Place: A HyperHistory of the Elusive Acoustics of Concert Hall Venues

Any music lover who has traveled to Europe retains mental images of glorious 18th and 19th-century opera houses: Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Venice’s Teatro la Fenice, the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Vienna Staatsoper, and the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Opulent and splendid, they feature multiple tiers encircling an orchestra floor in a horseshoe shape. The tiered balconies are the key component that makes these spaces excellent for opera.

Consider the needs of the performers. Opera is a multi-media production, the most complex of the performing arts. A full orchestra requires a pit. Singers and dancers need a proscenium stage. That stage must be equipped with the most elaborate wing space, fly loft, trap, and backstage amenities in order to accommodate elaborate scenery, props, plus the sheer number of performers required for crowd scenes. While the orchestra wishes to be heard, it has balance issues that are entirely different from those in the concert hall. Furthermore, the singers are dealing with aspects of both theater and music. Their voices need to carry throughout the opera house, but they also want the words they are singing to be understood, which means that the space cannot be overly reverberant.


The Chagall ceiling at Le Palais Garnier, Paris, France
Courtesy Opéra de Paris

The distinguishing feature that makes opera houses work well is the balcony fronts. In terms of sound behavior, they are to the opera house what side walls and balcony soffits are to the concert hall. Each time a sound wave hits a balcony front, that façade functions as a reflective surface and a secondary sound source, scattering the sound throughout the room. Acousticians call the process diffraction. (For full color animations of this concept, see Nicholas Edwards and David Kahn, “Why Do Traditional Opera Houses Work So Well for Opera?“)

From Out of Place: A HyperHistory of the Elusive Acoustics of Concert Hall Venues
By Laurie Shulman
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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