The Castle Festival (Schlossfestspiele) has been held in the north German town of Schwerin since 1993. The magnificence of the 19th century lakeside schloss is the backdrop for open-air performances of classic operas by the Mecklenburg State Theatre to an audience of tens of thousands. In this, the festival’s 20th anniversary year, the meisterwerk selected was Johan Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (The Bat).
‘The Bat’ is a three-act comic opera set in 19th century Vienna and centres around playboy Gabriel von Eisenstein, who has been sentenced to a jail term after a run-in with a public official. He manages to delay his sentence by one night after being invited to Prince Orlofsky’s masked ball, but unbeknownst to Eisenstein, his wife, Rosalinde, has also made plans to take advantage of his absence and decides to attend – and all hell breaks loose!
Key to this production, which was by directed and produced by the theatre’s own Daniel Huppert and Peter Dehler respectively, is vocal intelligibility. How can that be guaranteed when you're dealing with an outdoor environment as well as a 40-piece choir, a sizeable orchestra, and 11 main vocalists? Easy: a bulletproof digital wireless system, insists Shure's RF specialist, Jens Stellmacher. Sixty-eight channels of the manufacturer's state-of-the-art ULX-D systems were deployed by rental house Neumann & Müller Veranstaltungstechnik for Die Fledermaus – this is show 13 of 23 scheduled performances, and so far, so good.
“The great thing about our digital technology it that it's extremely spectrum-efficient. We can do 350kHz spacing between channels on this system, which is better than anything that's out there, and it's all in the 710-782MHz band: that 72MHz space is good for 200 channels if there is no digital TV and we're not even running at full power,” he reveals. “We brought it into Neumann & Muller six weeks ago and they say they've never had a single issue with it; once they turned it on, they didn't have to change anything, which is just perfect.”
The full Shure breakdown amounts to 27 ULX-D Dual Receivers, three ULX-D Quad Receivers, 66 ULX-D1 Body Packs, 12 ULX-D2/B87A handhelds, seven antenna splitters, four 24-port network switches – and two UA874e Active Directional Antennas for good measure.
As well as being “a step ahead of the competition”, Stellmacher insists that because these Shure receivers are all networked over Dante, the job at hand becomes much more straightforward.
“Dante is a big advantage here because the protocol uses standard IP components and 1Gb switches; what's also really cool is that because Yamaha also uses it for its consoles, there is a built-in redundancy to the whole system,” he explains, adding that four Yamaha consoles are providing control for the production. “Everything is so easy and there's also none of this crazy cabling and patching that we used to have to do, as everything talks to everything else via a Cat5 cable.”
FOH position boasts a glorious view of the stage and setting, and is home to main engineer, Erwin Liebscher (pictured), and second engineer, Martin Wurmest. The two work side-by-side from a Yamaha CL5 and CL1 respectively: Wurmest mixes the orchestra; and Liebscher is in charge of the vocals. But there's more...
Tucked away in a tech room, a third engineer, Benjamin Schulz, mixes the choir on the CL1 and sends four stereo stems (bass, alto, tenor and soprano) up to Liebscher. In addition, because all 11 soloists are double-miked, Schulz also has the job of pre-selecting the best 11 (out of 22) soloist mics and then sends those stems up to Liebscher. Finally, Wurmest creates several slightly different sounding stereo stems of the orchestra to Liebscher, who makes the final tweaks.
“All the engineers are on intercom, as if you change from a lavalier to a headset, the sound also changes; that's basically how they do it,” Stellmacher explains. “There's actually another technician running the new version of our Wireless Workbench, which is now in real time, therefore suffers from no latency; he is handling the packs and the mics, and if anything drops out then he takes care of it right away. Benjamin [Schulz] does the actual monitoring in the room next door to him.”
Liebscher says when working with a choir, you've got to take real care of the four separate elements: alto, tenor, soprano and baritone, as each requires different processing treatment.
“Despite the four very different types of singer, the vocal sound we get from the Shure mics is always excellent – all I'm doing is lightly compressing and EQing the soloists, dependent on their dynamic ranges, and I'm constantly riding the faders throughout the show,” he explains. “What's really nice about the CL console range is that you can mix on them like you would an analogue desk, which is what I'm doing a lot of the time here; the internal effects are also good, and of course, as it's Yamaha, you know it won't let you down on the night.”
Liebscher also deployed a TiMax tracker controlling a TiMax2 SoundHub delay matrix to achieve continuous audio localisation of the Shure radio mics as the actors move around stage. The effect is to maintain realism, while enhancing intelligibility.
“There are three zones on stage and the actors have a tech who is transmitting their position, which the TiMax system then recognises,” he explains. “If an actor moves left to right, for example, the TiMax system looks after all the time, the delay and level settings automatically; it's an extremely cool bit of kit, and works very well here.” Agreed: in performance, the audio appears to be emanating directly from whichever soloist is speaking or singing.
But where is the PA?
“The whole brief was to keep the system hidden, so focus is only ever on the actors,” smiles Stellmacher. “We have d&b Q1s for the main PA, which is configured left/right and hidden behind the set along with four QSubs for low-end reinforcement. In addition, we've got T10s for the sidefills and the nearfill.” A closer inspection reveals d&b B2 wedges at the front of the stage powered by D12 amplifiers. Kling & Freitag CA106 boxes at the rear of the arena facilitate a ‘surround sound’ element to the sound design. It's 9pm and showtime is approaching. The audience take to their seats armed with beer and bratwurst, and the next three hours are filled with finely distilled Strauss. Wunderbar.