San Francisco Opera | Backstage with Matthew: The Orchestra Shell

A Surface of Infinite Possibilities

I hope that you are staying as well as one can amidst this time of great challenge in our world. To be grappling with such devastating fires on top of the pandemic and the continued urgency for racial justice is a painful moment. The thoughts and support of all of us at San Francisco Opera are with you.

I have talked before about the vital importance of creativity at this moment of otherwise silence. We are approaching six months of sheltering in place, and during this whole time I have felt so uplifted by even the smallest example of creativity. We are a company that craves creativity, and the need for it has never been more acute.

The flag of creativity is being flown high in our Scene Shop and Costume Shop, both of which have been open for some months now. I wanted to share with you a fabulous project, which the Scene Shop has just finished, and that is now sitting on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House: a new orchestra shell!

An orchestra shell is a hard surface that is added to a proscenium stage to create a more symphonic environment — a large reflective surface that focuses the sound out into the auditorium when scenery is not there to do that job. Many theaters have a shell, but we have not had our own custom shell since the late 1970s when the Symphony left for Davies Hall. Here’s an early example of a symphonic shell in the War Memorial Opera House in 1936 with the San Francisco Symphony under Pierre Monteux.

San Francisco Opera Archive PhotoIt’s amazing that we’ve gone since the 1970s without a custom orchestra shell. When we decided to open the 2020–2021 season with a concert featuring Pene Pati and Albina Shagimuratova, we knew that it was time! We needed something that could reflect the singers’ voices into the house, but also something that could grow and morph over time into a full orchestral shell.

Our Production Manager, Ryan O’Steen, took on the task of designing the orchestra shell and I wanted to share with you his journey.

San Francisco Opera Production Manager Ryan O’Steen backstage with his shell

San Francisco Opera Production Manager Ryan O’Steen backstage with his shell. You can see the nesting mechanism at the bottom of one of the shell panels here.

Ryan began with an extensive research project, exploring orchestra shells and how they addressed certain needs — acoustical, logistical, and aesthetic. He partnered with our great friends at Meyer Sound, particularly Senior Scientist Roger Schwenke, to develop guidelines for what would work best, including the choice of materials. Meyer Sound advised that the denser the wood, the better reflectivity of sound. The ideal was 1.5-inch hardwood, but that would create a logistical impossibility weight-wise for each unit. So we determined a 0.5-inch dense oak with a natural grain finish, fashioned into a barrel-type curvature for acoustic and aesthetic benefit.

Ryan’s design is ingenious. Each 24-foot high unit is comprised of three panels that open out on hinges and allow for great flexibility in the shape of the shell. The panels have a ribbing structure, cut out of plywood on our CNC router (for more on the CNC, click here). The center panel of each unit is attached to an aluminum frame, the base of each being counterweighted with 900lbs of pig irons as you can see below.

The triangular element is what nests into the other units

900 lbs of counterweight per unit. The triangular element is what nests into the other units.

Members of the Opera stage crew with the rear of the orchestra shell

Members of the Opera stage crew with the rear of the orchestra shell, showing the six units in formation! Photo credit: David Hatch.

Ryan’s design allows for very efficient storage. The lowest section of each center panel pulls out like a drawer, and then rises up to create a 3ft door in each center panel. Each unit can then slide into another, and all panels can nest together for storage. We currently have six units (18 panels) and, when nested, they only take up 5ft x 12ft! The whole structure can be stored away in a corner of the backstage and potentially stay there for a whole opera season, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice.

The hatches that open up in the structure to reveal the nesting units.

The hatches that open up in the structure to reveal the nesting units.

Three of the units nested around each other. It is such an elegant design!

Three of the units nested around each other. It is such an elegant design!

Reconstructing the panels from their deep-storage configuration is also very efficient. The whole system packs away onto palettes for storage in our Modesto warehouse. It only takes about 45 minutes per unit to re-build them: the crew builds the center unit first, raising it up with a chain motor, and then attaches the wing panels to it using the hinges. It’s a system designed to be portable, storable, and playable on very short notice.

It’s also a system that’s designed to expand. The first phase is just six units that form a small parabola on stage — enough for a few singers or a chamber orchestra. The second phase would expand to a larger parabola and the third phase to more of a full trapezoidal concert shell into which you could fit the full San Francisco Opera Orchestra. There are also overhead ceiling panels with built-in lights that would complete the shell, which have yet to be built. And, what’s more, the lower 8-foot section of each side panel can be used as doors for staged exits and entrances! Now that we’ve completed phase one, we can determine whether any adjustments are needed before we go to phases two and three.

Ground plans for three schematic possibilities for the orchestra shell.

Ground plans for three schematic possibilities for the orchestra shell.

When we received word that we could reopen our Burlingame Scene Shop with the easing of manufacturing guidelines in May this year, we decided to move ahead with the build of phase one. We knew that, coming out of this pandemic, we would need to be more flexible than ever before, and having flexible theatrical units is a major part of that. The orchestra shell is a great example of a theatrical piece that can be used in many contexts — concerts, semi-staged works, visual-art-driven productions, etc. So too is the Fidelio set that we are also currently building — an incredibly flexible design that could work in many situations as we emerge back into the reality of live performance.

Our Scene Shop, headed by John Del Bono, did a spectacular job building the orchestra shell, despite some significant challenges in the supply chain. Ryan told me that the supply of oak all but dried up in the first months of the pandemic — it wasn’t clear whether they could get the necessary amount, but ultimately they were able to piece together enough supply to finish the shell. The challenge of supply chains is something that the Shop is grappling with in other areas as well — they are having a real challenge finding enough chain link fence for our Fidelio set, not to mention the two-way mirrored plexiglass needed for the production, now that plexiglass manufacturers have retooled their shops to make clear acrylic divider panels. What were readily available materials pre-COVID are now incredibly hard to find.

Victor Sanchez and Christian Marinez applying the 0.5-inch oak cladding to the CNC-cut routers.

Victor Sanchez and Christian Marinez applying the 0.5-inch oak cladding to the CNC-cut routers.

The aluminum frames for the units in the metalworking part of the Shop.

The aluminum frames for the units in the metalworking part of the Shop.

The building of the orchestra shell showcased the very efficient process in the shop — the progression from the metalworking area through to the woodworking area, then to the paint floor where Steve McNally and his team applied the gold finish designed to complement the color of the proscenium and create a reflective surface for light.

Steve McNally and Jennifer Bennes applying the gold paint finish to the units.

Steve McNally and Jennifer Bennes applying the gold paint finish to the units.

I was able to head down to the Scene Shop on several occasions these past few months and it was so heartening to see this work happening. Every aspect of the work environment has been assessed for social distancing, and there are strict protocols in place to ensure that everyone is safe at all times. It’s incredible to see how these kinds of projects have been able to move forward thanks to the expertise and dedication of our Production Department, headed by Managing Director: Production Jen Good.

One of the units in our Burlingame scene shop, laying prostrate and showing the beauty of the craftsmanship.

One of the units in our Burlingame scene shop, laying prostrate and showing the beauty of the craftsmanship.

On one of my visits a few weeks ago, the units had been assembled and were waiting for transport to the Opera House stage. As John Del Bono commented to me, they were like sleeping giants arrayed on the floor! The craftsmanship in these units is exceptional and a great example of the care and expertise that each member of our crew brings to the Company.

The gentle giants waiting for transport to the Opera House.

The gentle giants waiting for transport to the Opera House.

A few days ago, I had one of those rare but treasured moments during the pandemic to be in the theater and to see the magic unfolding on stage. Members of the crew were testing how the orchestra shell takes projections, and I was very eager to see the shell erected and to experience the test. It was amazing! The shell itself is beautiful — a wonderful homage to the architecture of the theater, and a stunning backdrop to what will ultimately be soaring music making under the baton of Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim.

Stage view of the orchestra shell

The projection tests worked so well, particularly with vertical images that echoed the structure of the units. Bold, colorful projection images moved effortlessly across the units, and we were transported between different worlds at the push of a button.

Projection and lighting tests on the new orchestra shell.

Projection and lighting tests on the new orchestra shell.

As I’ve mentioned, the shell also brings great flexibilities. Our spectacular projection crew can map images to any 3D surface and so projections could be tailored to hug the unit like a glove. Given the ingenuity of Ryan’s design, we could even re-skin the structure with a different surface at some point in the future if we wanted a different effect. Additionally, the shell could be rearranged on stage in many, many permutations.

The shell from up in the fly tower showing the arrangement of the panels. Photo credit: Ryan O’Steen.

The shell from up in the fly tower showing the arrangement of the panels. Photo credit: Ryan O’Steen.

Orchestral concerts, solo recitals, semi-staged operas, and new forms of opera that have yet to be conceived — the many types of performances this unit can support is incredible! I cannot wait for you to experience it in the Opera House, with live music, beautiful lighting, and the knowledge that, out of the pandemic, came such wonderful creativity from Ryan O’Steen and the San Francisco Opera crew.

Members of the San Francisco Opera Production department and crew

Members of the San Francisco Opera Production department and crew.

With creativity like this during a pandemic, I have great optimism for what lies ahead! With warmest wishes,
Matthew

PS – I wanted to share with you a Spotify playlist that I’ve been building up over some years now. It’s not operatic, but it is vocal, and is a collection of some sublime choral works that I go to time and time again when I’m looking for peace and tranquility. It’s my “Reflection” playlist, available on Spotify, and I hope that you enjoy it!

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