The Sound of a Sunset

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Sunset Theater, California

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of the re-opening of Sunset Theater in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, after a two-year, $21 million renovation. Enhancements included improving the acoustics, enlarging the stage and widening the proscenium. Your Performance Partners recently caught up with the project’s acoustical consultant, Dennis A. Paoletti, FASA FAIA, of San Mateo, California, who coincidentally is working on another Sunset Theater project in 2013.

  • Read about the 2003 project below
  • Following, Paoletti describes the 2013 project.

2003 Project: From Auditoria magazine (Feb. 2004)

A facility renovation involves the challenge of innovation and compromise while working within existing constraints.

To disperse sound energy more uniformly, the Sunset Theater’s gothic-style plaster arches were replaced with perforated metal. Also, the entire proscenium was built as a scrim-like, acoustically transparent wall to improve sound projection. Theatrical lighting was accommodated through the addition of a wishbone-shaped catwalk that mimics the arches. The project architect was Architectural Resources Group.

New Shell & Canopy. Central to the theater’s acoustical improvements was a new acoustical shell and distinctive overhead canopy, both constructed of Wenger’s Diva technology. The acoustical consultant for the project was Dennis Paoletti with Shen Milsom & Wilke / Paoletti.

Over his 35-year career, Paoletti has designed ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of facilities, with Wenger involved in many of them. “Wenger is a recognized name in the industry,” says Paoletti. “They do good work in this very focused market, with both standard and custom products. Wenger’s expertise allows the design team’s technical needs to be met, while still conforming to the architectural requirements of the space.”

The overhead canopy Paoletti designed features an overlapping clamshell shape, related to the prominent interior arches. By extending into the hall above the proscenium, the canopy projects strong early sound energy from the stage to the audience area.

Sunset Theater, CaliforniaAcoustical Enhancement. To further improve acoustics, Sunset Theater also features a LARES electronic enhancement system that takes the best the space can offer and “kicks it up a notch” in Paoletti’s words. “Although it’s a highly advanced system, it’s easy to use,” he explains. “Simply push a button.”

He says the Diva shell provides a certain amount of inherent flexibility, such as from the folding wing sections. While wing sections of adjacent towers are usually positioned contiguously, Paoletti says Sunset Theater has experimented with spreading the wing sections apart slightly to improve sound levels.

Proven Science. Paoletti believes advancements in technology make the process of acoustical design less risky than it once was. “There’s a lot more experience and shared expertise out there,” he says, citing as an example the Concert Hall Research Group, a voluntary association of consultants who exchange resources and ideas. “Good acoustics is based on proven scientific principles – it’s less and less of a ‘black art,’” says Paoletti.

The design of the Diva shell’s components is also based on solid acoustical principles, years of research and field experience. For example, the panels’ highly rigid honeycomb composite construction provides lightweight strength without sacrificing rigidity. The acoustical performance of Diva panels has been verified in independent laboratory tests in the United States and Germany.

2013 Project: From Dennis A. Paoletti, FASA FAIA (Aug. 2013)

After the Sunset Theater has been operating successfully with a full schedule of performances and activities for just about 10 years, it feels appropriate that I’m still enjoying my consulting relationship with this beautiful facility. Changes have occurred in facility administration and technical staff including a new music director for the annual international Bach Music Festival.

Careful Evaluation. After 10 years of intense operation, the theater’s technical systems and supporting infrastructure are being reviewed with an eye towards potential upgrades. General wear and tear on the interior of a facility can take its toll and is often very obvious to the normal human eye and typical theater attendee.

Maintaining Safety. However, wear and tear on the technical infrastructure and systems is not so obvious. Hence, regular service and maintenance of these systems is important from an operational and safety standpoint. Additionally, performing arts facilities like the Sunset Theater that serve a local community and the public in general need to satisfy attendees’ expectations and generate revenue. To accomplish these goals, the facility’s infrastructure can be its most important aspect.

Team Effort. Collectively a team comprised of the Sunset Center, the city of Carmel, and the Bach Music Festival administration, along with the original theater consultant and me, is looking at performing some technical system upgrades and developing a five-year master plan for the facilities. This includes acoustics, sound systems, lighting and rigging systems. Wenger continues to be involved providing historical oversight and working with the consultants regarding upgrades to the orchestra shell ceiling components and the rigging system.

Good Acoustics Still High Priority. Across the performing arts today, tight money (the economy) and sustainability are prevalent issues, especially related to new and/or renovation of existing facilities. However, when projects do move ahead, “good acoustics” remains a high priority. It’s expected; and the acoustical consulting community has the experience and tools to make it happen.

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