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350 year old Passion Play ‘goes electric’ with Yamaha

Dec,2010

Since the mid-1600s, the Oberammergau Passionsfestspiele (passion play) has been performed every ten years in the German village of the same name. The 2010 performances used sound reinforcement for the first time in its history, with a Yamaha PM5D front of house console chosen for the auspicious occasion.

After many months of suffering from war, poverty and particularly plague, in 1633 the villagers of Oberammergau in Bavaria pledged to perform a passion play - depicting the life, death and resurrection of Christ - every ten years. The plague’s spread halted and, at Whitsun the following year, the villagers fulfilled their promise, performing on a stage set up in the cemetery above the graves of recent plague victims.

As the play’s fame spread, progressively bigger stages had to be provided, until 1890, when a purpose-built theatre was erected. This was upgraded for the 2000 production and it now accommodates audiences of 4700.

2010 marked the 41st season of the play, with 2000 villagers dedicating a year of their lives to the project - none of whom are professional thespians - culminating in 105 performances (plus five public previews) between May and October. Each performance lasted for eight hours, including a three hour interval.

This year's Oberammergau Passionsfestspiele was the first ever to feature any kind of sound reinforcement and, with such a long history, it was unsurprising that some villagers took a little persuasion to embrace the technology.

“In the past, the audience had to resort to reading along in a text book to follow the dialogue,” says Michael Kennedy, the 2010 play’s sound engineer. “A number of those involved in were sceptical about using sound reinforcement for the first time, taking the view that the play had been ‘fine’ without it for over 300 years.

“But the aim was to make the use of audio technology as unobtrusive and subtle as possible. We had the greatest respect for the play’s history and even the sceptics were won over by the time the first performance took place.”

Supplied by the Munich branch of event production company Neumann&Mueller Event Technology, this year’s production featured a Yamaha PM5D with two MY16EX and one MY16MD64 MADI interface cards. Other Yamaha equipment included 13 P4500 power amplifiers and two pairs of MSP5 powered monitors.

“The play is a sequence of acted scenes, which are opened, closed and punctuated by segments of narration and music from the orchestra, a 60-piece choir and soloists,” says Michael.

“Realising an ‘invisible’ sound reinforcement system for a 40m wide stage that maintained the perceived acoustic source for whichever actor was speaking and providing good speech intelligibility to the back row of seats, 60 metres from the stage, was a major challenge!”

In doing this, Michael and the show’s sound designer, Rudolf Pirc of N&M, had to overcome a number of hurdles. These included miking over 100 speaking roles without the use of vast numbers of radio microphones and bringing the sound of the orchestra - located in a deep pit, largely beneath the stage - successfully to all areas of the audience.

To achieve it, the PM5D had 44 inputs - 13 for the play’s orchestra, seven radio mics and a mixture of directional shotgun and PZM foot microphones for the actors and choir - with 40 scenes programmed into the console.

“The first scene recalled everything and was there to ensure the correct state prior to starting the performance,” says Michael. “Thereafter, most scenes only recalled fader and DCA positions. This enabled me to automate large amounts of fader movements (choir on / off, orchestra DCA on / off and so on) while still being able to make EQ changes to accommodate things like day-to-day inconsistencies in the sound or to switch off a channel - for instance should a microphone problem develop.”

While effects were largely unnecessary - again a mark of Rudolf and Michael’s respect for the play’s long heritage - the console’s virtual analogue (VCM) EQ was inserted into the orchestra mix to make it a little warmer.

A key requirement, for a six-month run of a play in a venue which is partly open to the elements, was that the console had to be extremely reliable.

“The console was left running almost continuously from the middle of April until October in a venue that is effectively an open shed, as far as protection from the weather is concerned. Temperatures ranged from just under 0°C to the high 30s, but the desk did its job without any fuss at all,” Michael says.

“The PM5D was very well suited to the production and easy to work. I was particularly happy to have the Preview function, which allowed me to preview a scene other than the current live scene, edit any changes I felt were needed, and then save it without interrupting a rehearsal or performance.

“Yamaha’s support was also, as always, very good. Requests were always met with quick, fuss-free assistance and solutions.”

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