Office of Public Works with Keith Williams Architects' new Wexford Opera House
Wexford’s Theatre Royal gave award-winning lighting designer Sutton Vane Associates the chance to place its skills centre stage
Architect OPW Architectural Services with Keith Williams
Client Wexford Festival Opera
Lighting consultant Sutton Vane Associates
Structural engineer Arup
Contractor Cleary Doyle Contracting
Opera lovers across the globe have been flocking to Ireland for the Wexford Festival Opera for the past half a century. But in recent years, Madame Butterfly’s future in County Wexford had been looking shaky. Despite various refurbishment programmes, the Theatre Royal, the festival’s former home, had become a decrepit building in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to stage opera.
Prior to the project’s inception in 2003, the festival contacted the Office of Public Works Architects, a 2,000-strong practice, which manages all state buildings in Ireland, for advice on yet another make-do refurbishment. OPW’s answer was: forget it — hereon, a new building on an expanded site is your only option. The festival then set about acquiring the Theatre Royal’s adjacent local newspaper printing works, and the architect put out a competition for a full design team. Enter Keith Williams Architects, BD’s 2006 Public Building Architect of the Year, and lighting designer Sutton Vane Associates. The architect and lighting designer had previously worked together on another Irish project, the Athlone Civic Centre, in County Westmeath, for which Sutton Vane won the 2005 National Lighting Design Award. For Wexford it has created a €350,000 (£277,000) centrally controlled lighting scheme.
In one important respect, the Wexford Opera House is very much like its predecessor, the Theatre Royal: reintegrated into the historic fabric of Wexford’s medieval centre, and behind reinstated terraced buildings, you get very little sense from the outside of the vast spaces that lie inside.
On the other side of the small, discrete entrance door, the secrecy continues as you walk through a low, dark space which houses the box office before emerging in the top-lit atrium. “It is a dramatic entry which seems particularly appropriate, given the building type,” comments Keith Williams.
The processional stair starts on the ground floor and as theatre-goers ascend its four flights, the building’s spaces unfold together with views over the town and the Stanley estuary.
“The increasingly good views are a reward for climbing ever higher,” says Williams.
Auditorium lighting: downlights, canopy lights, bridge lights
Sutton Vane lit the black American walnut-lined 780-seat auditorium, its curves inspired by a cello, with hundreds of completely dimmable recessed tungsten halogen downlights.
These tiny pinpricks of sparkling light wash the wood beautifully and provide an even, shadowless, light. The tungsten halogen has a warm colour temperature and its yellowy hue works well with the wood in the auditorium. The majority of the lights are fixed on the underside of balconies, shining down on the seating below, but some are also surface-fixed on the metal maintenance bridge that hangs off the ceiling.
The many circuits in the auditorium are controlled from a sound and lighting booth located on the ground floor of the auditorium.
Both the theatrical and architectural lights, clustered in groups of up to a dozen, can be controlled individually from the booth to create a customised look for each performance.
Auditorium downlights are by Erco and auditorium uplights are by Meyer Commercial Lighting.
The recessed tungsten halogen downlightsin the balcony soffits are used to provide general downward illumination.
Higher-intensity tungsten halogen lights provide lighting to the platform and orchestra pit.
The tungsten halogen lights fitted to the undersideof the bridges are used to light seating areas.
Ice cube pendant lighting at bars
There are bars on all four floors of the public area, and to encourage congregation, each one is lit by half a dozen pendant ice cube lights that hang above the length of the bar. “They add a bit of sparkle,” says Sutton Vane director Michael Grubb.
The bar lights are by Delta Light and have been supplied by Wink Lighting, Dublin.
Foyer and stairwell light slots
Public circulation areas are lit by light slots carved into the plaster. Random in length, these gashes run across the ceilings and down the walls and, in some cases, are L-shaped and do both.
Though these, dimmable fluorescent lights are never completely switched off. During the day, the front of house is lit by daylight that pours in through the atrium, but as darkness falls, the slashes of light become more prominent. The light they emit is never very intense. “This isn’t a petrol station forecourt, we just want people to see their way round,” says Williams. But they do go on and off rapidly at curtain call. “Sometimes a bit of lighting urgency is required,” says Grubb.
“We like our lighting in bands and blocks, and we aren’t interested in anything that could be described as showy,” says Williams. This was a departure point for the gashes of light Sutton Vane inscribed into the walls and ceilings of the public circulation areas. Slotting straight into the plaster, these linear luminaries have a polycarbonate-frosted cover and are up to 4.5m in length. Fluorescent bulbs don’t emanate light evenly, so the big challenge was to create subtle joins that concealed the sections and gave a continual line of light. This was particularly challenging with the L-shaped units, where it was crucial to avoid a dark patch in the corner join.
The slot lights are controlled by a preprogrammed touch-screen control system located behind the reception on the first floor.
Strip fittings are by Modular and are supplied by Donegan Lighting, and the step lights are by Concord Marlin.
Photographs by Ros Kavanagh