Working closely with the acoustic design consultants — a joint venture of Arup Acoustics, which also worked on the Copenhagen Opera House, and local firm Brekke & Strand Akustikk — the architects used an intricate and extremely detailed three-dimensional model of the room to get a sense for how music would sound in the space. They used this 3D model, along with a 1:50 scale physical model, to predict the acoustic performance and tweak the design.
"Many old [Italian] opera houses have short reverberation times, making the words sound clear but the orchestra sound dry, while modern opera houses tend to have longer reverberation time to produce more a concert-like orchestral sound," explains Rob Harris, director of Arup's global performing arts business. "The design brief in Oslo followed this trend, so the challenge for [us] was to provide the right balance between the two."
Jeremy Newton, an auditorium acoustic designer at Arup, continues: "We needed to maximise the volume while still providing intimacy in the relatively small space. So we exposed the room structure and formed the idea of 'ears' for the room, stepping out the auditorium walls at high level above the seating tiers. The room is narrow low down, which provides clarity and intimacy, and wide at the top, which provides reverberance."
"Because the ideal acoustics of a hall are different for different performances, the House includes a large area of curtains," Newton adds. "These can be extended into the room, using computer-controlled motors, to provide a less resonant acoustic for contemporary (electronic) opera and for the occasional amplified concert."
On opening night, the main hall's acoustics proved outstanding. A gala performance demonstrated the striking clarity of the singers' voices, as well as the triumphant and vibrant sounds of the orchestra (who were seated below sea level).
Despite the crowd of 1,300, which included Norway's King Harald and Queen Sonja, the space did not feel overfilled. Care had clearly been taken to ensure all visitors could enjoy a show, with good views from every seat.
The marathon performance of nearly five hours included participation by several local choirs, many in traditional Norwegian dress, reinforcing the local political and social connections between the citizens and their opera house.
The Oslo Opera House is a key part of an ongoing urban redevelopment project, which at the moment has this new landmark backing onto a busy motorway, cut off from the rest of the city. It's hard to imagine how radically transformed the area will be when the roads are buried underground and the concrete turned into a green, urban park in the coming years, as is planned.
The Opera House may have put Oslo on the map for innovative new urban cultural buildings, but its true success will come as part of a new, pedestrian-friendly quarter on the city's industrial waterfront.
Terri Peters is a writer and designer based in London.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...