Where did the pit go?
Well, everything is different right now! Normally the Nationaltheater’s stage is a meeting place. There’s hardly ever a quiet moment here, as the Bayerische Staatsoper’s stage technicians work away almost around the clock. Right now of course, our stage is often a great big empty space. Large events have been cancelled in the Free State of Bavaria since 11 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With our Strolls on Wednesday, the Ensemble Saturdays and Independent Sundays we bring the stage to life just a little bit and as much as the hygiene rules will allow. And our visitors might just notice something different on these days.
A floor has now appeared where the orchestra pit usually sits deep below, separated from the auditorium by a balustrade. What may sound a little drastic, ultimately serves a very good purpose. To respond to the new requirements in the best way possible and therefore work towards reopening in the autumn, among other things we must enable our orchestra musicians to comply with the applicable hygiene measures and distance regulations while they are working. Covering the orchestra pit to enlarge the area they can play on was one of many steps in this direction. Karsten Matterne, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Technical Director, explained the technical and coronavirus-related considerations behind the orchestra pit conversion to us.
“Covering the pit isn’t really all that unusual. It actually happens far more often than you’d think,” says Karsten Matterne. The orchestra pit is also covered during regular Bayerische Staatsoper operations for individual productions, such as a ballet without orchestra or for concerts. Technically this is pretty easy to do by putting in a substructure at either room or stage level, on which floor boards are then laid to extend the stage area, or the auditorium with further rows of seats. During regular theatre operations a conversion like this can be required for stage design reasons, but in the age of corona it is due to the need for a larger work area for the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, so it can now play while also complying with the applicable distance regulations. “What is unusual is the fact that the balustrade bordering the pit will also be removed this time. It’s been fifty years since it was last taken out,” Matterne adds. This step and the removal of the first four rows of seats were necessary to extend the orchestra pit area into the auditorium. While the orchestra pit had a size of 100 square metres before these measures were taken, another 70 square metres of playable area could be gained.
Visitors that know our establishment especially well might raise a finger at this point and insist that the Bayerische Staatsoper’s orchestra pit is already above-average sized anyway, and under normal conditions offers space for up to 111 musicians. Firstly, for instance, very few Bayerische Staatsoper productions actually exceed the capacities of our orchestra pit, as Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera, Die Soldaten, does, for example. Its orchestral needs require about 120 orchestra musicians, a jazz band and 43 drummers all told, who work away both in the orchestra pit and on and behind the stage. Secondly, as Matterne points out, the size of the orchestra pit also always depends proportionally on the size of the respective venue. As the Nationaltheater’s stage is one of the world’s largest – with five tiers the auditorium holds more than 2,100 seats –, a greater capacity in the orchestra pit is required for the sound development.
All these dimensions, however, become obsolete with the hygiene measures and distance regulations that now apply – a radial distance of 1.5 meters between all musicians must be guaranteed. “Every musician is therefore provided about seven square meters,” says Karsten Matterne and adds: “If this distance is reduced, structural hygiene measures will have to be implemented.” He also tells us that various measures are currently being tested at the Bayerische Staatsoper, ranging from protective masks to screens, to perspex panels. The latter are increasingly discussed in the media as a reliable solution. However, as Matterne also points out, with this protective measure there is also the fact that the reverberant perspex panels reflect the sound back directly onto the musicians and cause a disturbing volume increase, especially for brass players. Despite the expansion of the orchestra pit, because of the required hygiene measures only a few of the Staatsorchester’s musicians will be able to play together at first: “We’re using layout drawings to determine what orchestra set-ups might be possible in the future.”
If we take a look at the orchestra pit changes, it quickly becomes clear that these will also have further effects, in addition to just the orchestra’s spatial position. While normally the orchestra literally sits in the pit with opera performances and consequently takes on a subordinate role, the musicians’ raised position means an increased visual perception. The orchestra will also be far more acoustically present in the auditorium, as the sound will diffuse differently. This will be an additional challenge for conductors to continue achieving a good sound balance between the orchestra and the singing on the stage.
Despite all the challenges the protective measures bring for us and our fellow human beings, we are certain that our colleagues’ persistence and creativity in the culture sector and from us as well, are more than well worthwhile. “A cautious approach is necessary,” says Matterne. “But we essentially want to do everything possible to get back to the public and stay in contact with our audiences. That’s the most important.”