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Sound Space Vision Creates a ‘Superb New Venue’ and ‘A Home for Music’ For Nevill Holt Opera
UK – The newly-opened Nevill Holt Opera House, universally acclaimed as ‘a superb new venue’ by the London Times and ‘an indisputable triumph’ by the Telegraph, is located in the elegantly converted 17th century stable block of the Nevill Holt Estate, Leicestershire. Its official inauguration took place on 14th June for the start of Nevill Holt Opera’s annual season, which this year ran from 14th-30th June.
Over the last six years, Nevill Holt Opera (NHO), supported by the David Ross Foundation (DRF), has built an opera company to support emerging British opera talent and local children and students from DRF academies.
NHO’s summer opera season was previously housed in a temporary tented structure within the stable block which hid the interior of the historic structure. The limitations of the tent prompted the idea of a new permanent structure to keep out the noise of rain and wind, deliver an excellent acoustic for young voices, improve the audience/performer relationship whilst preserving the intimacy of the existing space, optimise the technical equipping of the stage and front of house and increase the capacity of the orchestra pit and auditorium.
The privilege of filling in and transforming the Grade II* listed building into a stunning example of a small modern opera house fell to Stirling Prize-winning architects, Witherford Watson Mann (WWM) who won the contract, along with heritage architects Julian Harrap. With its extraordinary track record in both theatre planning and acoustics for several successful country house opera buildings, Sound Space Vision formed part of the WWM team.
Sound Space Vision (SSV) believes that sharing performances reflects common humanity and has the ability to transform lives. “Opera houses are a speciality of ours,” says SSV founding director, Anne Minors, “and whilst we’ve consulted on many around the world, Nevill Holt Opera is unique, and we’re pleased to have surmounted its many challenges thanks to the teamwork of WWM architects, consultants and contractors, and the generosity of the David Ross Foundation and Nevill Holt Opera.”
NHO’s high artistic and musical standards and trademark emphasis on intimacy gave the design team a road map towards creating a new opera house that upholds and amplifies the company’s potential. The perceived simplicity of the theatrical design is one of the hall’s most defining features, but alongside this, great care has been taken to conceal the technical and cabling infrastructure within the architecture, whilst building a technically proficient and adaptable theatre.
Working within the planning constraints necessitated by the historical environment, which precluded a fly tower or large under-stage structures, SSV has been able to bring its considerable experience to play on many design elements of the new building.
Within the existing rectangular geometry, SSV set out the stage depth and height, the size of the orchestra pit and the audience capacity of a single space that connects the audience and performers. The orchestra pit – large enough to seat up to 50 musicians – gives the strings and wind section in particular a greater presence and bloom in the hall than was the case previously. SSV gave careful attention to the thickness and detailing of the timber which has created acoustical resonance and warmth to convey the subtle musical nuances of the artists.
Owing to the height restrictions of the heritage building, a very simple timber roof structure rests on the historic parapet walls. SSV director Mike Elliott elaborates: “Within the constraint of the roof height, SSV designed and specified a dedicated lighting, sound and AV cable infrastructure capable of supporting the specialist requirements while providing future-proofing for expansion and changing technology.”
With the WWM architectural team, SSV worked through several designs for the auditorium, settling on a gently curved form. The stalls and wraparound balcony form the horseshoe-shape favoured by opera companies for its three dimensional dynamic between the performers, the balcony and the stalls. Intimate and embracing, this shape affords superb sightlines for patrons. And, as SSV founding director Bob Essert explains: “The side balconies are particularly helpful in drawing audiences nearer to the stage and giving acoustical support as the sound bounces off the balconies’ undersides and front panels. The pattern of timber battens on the balcony fronts scatter high-frequency sound throughout the auditorium.”
Entry level access is easy and graceful with patrons entering the auditorium level mid-stalls, and stepping up to the back stalls, or down to the front rows. It also allows for ground level access directly to the stage and around the perimeter of the auditorium for maximum accessibility. SSV specified seating that was carefully designed with WWM using varying seat widths and back angles in different locations to maximise the comfort for the audience.
The layered timber enclosure, along with a green roof, the double-glazed skylight, and sound-attenuating air vents keep out the noise of wind, rain and the occasional aircraft that have been part of previous NHO seasons. The stable block’s exposed walls, additional infrastructure and materials, the shape, form and size of the auditorium and orchestra pit, as well as sound attenuation systems and controls, and specified fittings and fixtures all combine to create an opera house that delivers a first rate performance environment while being truly ‘of its place.’
While regular NHO patrons will remember past years’ accommodation, new patrons would be forgiven if they feel that this opera house has been here for some time – the new hall feels so perfectly placed, so confidently appropriate and naturally realised.
photos: Gary Summers
25th July 2018
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