Planning a cultural icon: the Oslo Opera House

March 28, 2008

Oslo Opera House is like an iceberg. Nine tenths of an iceberg is underwater. In the same way, 70% of Oslo's new opera house is hidden from the public. Some 25,000m2 is devoted to workshops, costume making, rehearsal and practice rooms, education and administration with the remainder being the public foyers and auditoria.

The brief

Planning of the new opera house started with the preparation of a clear and comprehensive brief that was used as the basis for the international architectural competition. Den Norske Opera and Ballet established a working group to determine exactly what facilities and spaces would be required in the new building.

At an early stage it was agreed that the new building had three zones. The backstage areas are essentially a factory for producing opera and ballet. They include heavy industrial spaces for making and painting scenery and working spaces for rehearsals, costume making and management. The second zone houses the public areas of the building — foyers, bars and restaurants which must be attractive to the public and of a quality comparable to other major public buildings. Finally, at the heart of the building are the auditorium and stage — the place where performer and audience meet to experience the magic of opera or ballet.

Preparation of the brief involved detailed consideration of the opera, ballet and orchestra and their future growth. Every aspect of the new building was examined with guidance from Theatre Projects Consultants. The output of several months of deliberations was a detailed Room Programme which identifed every one of the 1,100 rooms that would be needed in the new building. These ranged from Room 2.1.01 which is the main auditorium at 1,260m2, through to room 6.6.05, a Changing Room for four dancers at 18m2. Not only were the areas specified in the brief, but any dimensions or parameters essential to the successful operation of the building were provided. Den Norske Opera also carefully considered the nature of the spaces required. They had a clear vision of the type of auditorium required — a modern house drawing inspiration from the great historic opera houses of Europe.

The room programme and brief were at the heart of the documents issued to architects for the architectural competion.

Auditorium design

Den Norske Opera had a concept for the type of auditorium required but this had to be interpreted and converted into a practical, effective opera house. Many factors influence the design of an auditorium including acoustics, safety, comfort, ambience, atmosphere and obviously sightlines. Some think sightlines are a simple matter — you can either see the stage or you cannot. But in the case of an opera house they are much more complex. At an early stage in the design process, a series of sightline criteria were established to define an ideal seat including -

Edge of the stage — could an audience member see at least 80% of the front edge of the stage ? Top of the proscenium — could you see at least 70% of the top of the proscenium opening? Upstage area — can scenery be seen towards the rear of the stage? Surtitles — can each audience member see a surtitle screen?

During the design and construction period the traditional surtitling screen above the stage was replaced with individual seat back titles on LCD panels.

Stages and repertoire operation

Opera houses contain significant amounts of technology, such as stage machinery, production lighting, sound and communications systems. These systems typically account for some 15 to 18% of the overall cost of the building.

These systems have two main purposes — to enable spectacular scene changes in view of the audience and to facilitate the repertoire operation of the house.

The new opera house has a main stage on which the actual performance takes place. But it also has five other ancillary stages where scenery can be stored and from where it can quickly be brought onto the main stage either in view of the audience or during an interval. At stage level there are three ancillary stages — a rear stage, side stage and quadrant stage. Below stage level there are two additional side stages connected to stage level by large elevators able to move a full set.

Much of the equipment is also designed to enable repertoire operation in the house. The considerable demands of opera and ballet on performers mean that operas and ballets are not repeated on two successive nights. In addition, the stage is used during the day for rehearsals with scenery. Sizable sets and scenery therefore have to be removed after each performance. Much of the space required backstage is for the storage of scenery for productions that are in the repertoire. Significant machinery is required to move sizable sets and machinery from the main stage to side stages and storage areas.


The new opera house is located at the head of Oslo fjord. Although the design of the opera house is perfectly suited to this location, the part of the building which sits below water level was considered at risk from collision by large boats. The large daily ferry from Copenhagen docks only 400m from the new house. A dark and stormy Norwegian night could see the 40,000 tonne MS Pearl of Scandinavia miss its berth and steam into the opera house causing untold damage. In order to eliminate this risk the new opera house is protected by a "skips barriere" — a massive barrier located just below the waters surface. Any wayward ferry would be grounded on the barrier before it imperiled the opera house.

Grand gala

The opera house will be formally opened on 12 April with a Grand Gala. This event will be attended by royalty, state leaders and other special guests.

Planning a cultural icon: the Oslo Opera House
Credit: Erik Berg/Den Norske Opera & Ballett
Planning a cultural icon: the Oslo Opera House
Credit: Mondo*dr
Planning a cultural icon: the Oslo Opera House
Credit: Nina Reistad
Planning a cultural icon: the Oslo Opera House
Credit: Nina Reistad