Helsinki’s New Men in the Swedish Theatre

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In 1954 the novelist C.P. Snow wrote animatedly about the tension between the arts and the sciences: the traditionalists and those wanting to engage with new technologies. ‘The New Men’ was recognised as an iconic twentieth century text that examined the continuous conflict between the old and the new. Over half a century later it remains an ongoing item on the agenda of every restoration and renovation of architectural masterpieces and buildings of national importance across the globe.

The Svenska Teaten, or Swedish Theatre in Helsinki is a case in point. Built originally in 1860, the theatre burnt to the ground just three years later, but quickly rose from the ashes in 1866. Occupying a central site in the city, the building looks unchanged externally. Internally, however, things are now very different thanks to a major restoration project completed at the end of 2011. The installation of a new PA system into the quite breathtakingly beautiful auditorium was always going to be a delicate negotiation between technical requirements and historical preservation. Oskar Sjöberg, department head for light, sound and pyrotechnics at the Swedish Theatre was told by one member of the conservation team, “Do you really have to put on theatre shows here?”

The technical refurbishment was overseen by the Finnish consultancy, Akukon with system designer, Tapio Ilomaki leading the project, although, as he is keen to point out, “The user team, that is the theatre’s existing house technical team, have done a lot of the work for me.” The team, fronted by Ilomaki and Sjöberg, were faced primarily with the task of updating and installing equipment under the ever-watchful eye of a conservationist architect, quite rightly protective of the building’s infrastructure. The loudspeaker system chosen for the auditorium was d&b audiotechnik. “The main theatre is a complex room acoustically,” explains Sjöberg, “We knew we needed a system with the very precise targeting that d&b is renowned for. We looked originally at using Ci60s but when we heard d&b audiotechnik were about to launch the T-Series it seemed obvious to have a big rethink.”

“We used mainly T-Series cabinets in the auditorium,” Sjöberg continues, “We have twenty channels of sound feed, just the left/right system uses twelve; we have three balconies so the vertical spread is great, and the shadow beneath each balcony is deep and requires very accurate and clearly defined coverage. There is also lots of surround and effects, and fill for the boxes.” In total one hundred and thirty d&b loudspeakers were installed throughout all the theatre spaces, all driven from fifty D6 and D12 amplifiers. “One hundred and thirty loudspeakers and the architect had an issue with almost every placement,” laments Sjöberg.

The d&b system itself was provided by local company Msonic via entertainment integrators, Hedcom, while the installation design was mostly the work of Andreas ‘Stanley’ Lönqvist the theatre’s head of sound, with input from d&b and overseen by audio consultant Timo Liski from Sound Solutions who have their headquarters two hundred kilometres north of Helsinki in Tampere. Lönqvist obviously takes pride in being thorough. “The main auditorium can be tricky; it is a very dry space though the reflections from the back of the room are troublesome but the precision of the T-Series worked its magic.” In addition to the six hundred seat capacity auditorium, the theatre also boasts a small studio theatre and a rehearsal room all of which have been included in the refit. As Sjöberg comments, “Sound wise I believe we are the most technically equipped theatre in Finland.”

Head of sound Lönqvist is now busy reaping the rewards of everyone’s hard work as the sound designer for Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ fresh production of Christina which premiered the opening of the revitalised theatre. Currently, visitors can choose from a diverse programme of performances ranging from, ‘VIT’ by Andy Manley, a piece designed to introduce young children to the theatrical experience, to a new, innovative presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream collaboratively produced by the Swedish Theatre and the British theatre group, Told By An Idiot. The auditorium remains a glorious vision decorated in pale creams and gold true to its architectural heritage. Audiences can now drink in both the visual feast and revel in the audio experience at the same time. Perhaps the team found a solution to C.P. Snow’s dilemma after all?

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