The sound makes the Play


Rudolf Pirc from Neumann & Müller

The stage of the Passion Play Theatre holds a secret. Almost invisible to the audience, 18 loudspeakers are distributed across the entire width of the stage backdrop. "After all, this is an open structure to the rear, where I can't hang anything above it," explains sound designer Rudolf Pirc. "So we had to integrate the speakers into the backdrop, and that was quite a challenge." The placement was a tightrope walk between the different needs: For stage designer Stefan Hageneier and the play director, it was important that nothing could be seen. For Pirc, that the sound was right.

Somehow they came to an agreement, after haggling over millimetres in some cases and pushing the limits of what was physically possible, as Pirc recalls with a laugh. If you don't know exactly where to look, you really don't see the stage's elaborate technical inner workings. For fun, Pirc sometimes organises a quiz on how many loudspeakers have been installed. Actually, nobody comes up with the correct answer. So Hageneier can be satisfied with the result - and so is Pirc. In addition to the loudspeakers on stage, there are 54 small ones for the close-up area at the edge of the stage and 80 distributed in the audience area, which simulate the room acoustics of a concert hall. For the Passion Play, Pirc and his team have developed a sound concept with a good 200 playout paths. For comparison: Dolby 5.1, as most people know it, has only six.

Pirc worked in the Passion Play Theatre for the first time in 2005, for the production of "King David". In 2010, the Passion Play was also supported for the first time by sound technology, at that time still working with fixed directional microphones on the floor. Until then, the actors all had to speak loudly and frontally in order to be understood. With the technical support, softer tones became possible in 2010 and intelligibility improved considerably. However, all texts still had to be spoken directly towards the audience, which imposed a certain static on the production. The localisation could also be "improved", as Pirc says. "The loudspeakers were not positioned in the right place in sufficient numbers. You had about a reference if something was left or right, but it was no comparison to today. Now, if you sit from row 30 upwards, the resolution is so clear and unambiguous, even we were impressed. Even soft sounds come through precisely and are well understood. It just fits together now, everything comes from the right direction, and the brain doesn't have to strain listening anymore."

This effect is the result of a complex tracking system: the more than 100 speaking roles not only wear microports with transmitters, but also tracking transmitters. These transmit their position on stage to a computer programme, which relays their position to the sound system. Pirc's concern is to create an acoustic reference to what is happening visually on stage. If you like: to perfect the technical support to such an extent that it becomes as unobtrusive as possible and the result sounds as natural as possible. It should also sound at the back as if you were sitting at the very front. This fine separation of the sound requires the many loudspeakers; for a normal sound reinforcement of the theatre, considerably fewer would suffice.

Pirc was one of the first to work with such a localisation system and to develop it further. By the way, this comes from sports, in football it is used to determine how much and where a player has run, Ekki von Nordenskjöld and Josi Schmidbauer tell us. Together with Marc Heene and Toni Spirkl, they take care of the sound direction at every performance in the hall. They balance the microphones of the actors who are currently on stage. Which loudspeakers are used at which volume is automatically calculated based on the position of the speakers and is constantly monitored in the sound control room. The team is responsible for making sure that you only hear what you are supposed to hear. When asked about breakdowns, they have to admit: During rehearsals, it has happened that you can hear what an actor is saying in the dressing room. For good reasons, for example, the Jesus actor is equipped with two microphones: When the main microphone was full of blood after the scourging and failed, they were able to switch to the other one without interruption.

Sound engineer Ekki von Nordenskjöld (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Part of the sound team of the Passion Play: Marc Heene, Maximilian Kasseckert, Christian Richter and Toni Spirkl

To ensure that everything runs as smoothly as possible, there is a control room backstage where all performers have to check their microphones before their performance. The operation of the radio mics is permanently monitored from here. Maximilian Kasseckert and Christoph Müller see on their monitor if there is a malfunction. Then the emergency kit or "panic mike", which is ready to hand on the wall, comes into play - and one of the two has to run out, find the person affected and check where the fault is. "The big challenge is that the play takes so long and there are so many of them," says Josi Schmidbauer. "We have a textbook with lots of markers and we have the individual scenes programmed in the console so that we always have access to the active actors in a scene. But to concentrate over such a long playing time, that's exhausting." It's not made any easier by the corona-related shuffling of cast members, which is a regular occurrence these days. Therefore, it can happen that one actor takes over a sentence from another. "We have to communicate well with each other so that everyone is up to date and knows who is speaking when," says Ekki von Nordenskjöld.

Pirc, at any rate, is satisfied with the result. The microports make the players more independent in their movements, the play becomes more natural and free. The low-reflective wall installed at the back of the auditorium means that there are fewer disturbing reverberations, and the orchestra pit has also been acoustically improved by Gunter Engel of Akustik Büro Müller BBM, so that everything now sounds much more balanced. "And because of the location-based sound reinforcement, the sound now relates to what is happening on stage," says Pirc. "It's like a PAL TV compared to HD or even 4K resolution. We would now be at 4K in that comparison."

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photo: Sebastian Schulte