Quality Follows Innovation at the Zurich Opera House

Swan Lake — the epitome of classical dance. In the 2015-2016 theater season, The Zurich Opera House co-produced Swan Lake with the Teatro alla Scala Milano, relying on the flexibility and innovative features of Vectorworks® Spotlight software to breathe new life into this iconic "ballet of ballets."

Swan Lake at the Zurich Opera House © Carlos Quezada

Incredible Performances, Exemplary Staff – A Role Model of Repertory Theater

The Zurich Opera House is widely regarded as the leading opera house in Switzerland and one of the world’s most successful stages. The 1,100-seat theater opened in 1891 and produces opera, ballet, and classical concerts. In the 1980s, it was thoroughly renovated with a studio addition as a second venue. With a current repertoire of 60 productions per season, it is known for performances of the highest artistic and technical quality.

The Zurich Opera House © Dominic Büttner

Supporting this extensive calendar is a complex operation, requiring a strong team of personnel. The opera house’s technical staff must be able to set up and strike stage sets in short timeframes. To meet this challenge, 124 staff members are employed in the technical department, including a 30-member lighting team that works in shifts according to an elaborate schedule.

Opera House main stage with proscenium arch © Dominic Büttner

The Show Must Go On – Modernization During Ongoing Operations

Since the 2012-2013 season, Martin Gebhardt has been head of the lighting department at the Zurich Opera House. In this function, he not only creates the lighting design for many productions, but is also responsible for the complete modernization of the opera house’s lighting technology. The planning horizon of the renovation measures is five years.

Martin Gebhardt, Head of Lighting at the Zurich Opera House.

To optimize the processes of the lighting design and reduce the workload of the master electricians, Gebhardt created a new assistant post, mainly responsible for the creation of CAD drawings and the documentation of the lighting design. Since then, Lilith Gardell, a trained specialist in event engineering, uses Vectorworks Spotlight to ensure that the lighting plans maintain a professional and standardized appearance.

Detail from “Swan Lake Milan lighting stage level & gallery” © Martin Gebhardt, Zurich Opera House

Open for Sharing with other Theaters

“It is important to us that our plans show a unified appearance,” says Gebhardt. “The high quality of our plans is much appreciated by our international partners. We are happy to share our plans with them, as in the case of co-productions.”

Gebhardt is very conscious of the Zurich Opera House’s reputation as a role model and is interested in cooperation and exchange with other theaters. The lighting department of the Zurich Opera House is available as a resource for colleagues both nationally and internationally and, upon request, will share its experience in the use of Vectorworks Spotlight.

A Zurich Production

During a visit to the opera house, Gebhardt and Gardell described their work routine:

For the production of a new piece, lead time is approximately one year. The basis for every design is the multifunctional standard lighting plan, which contains the standard lighting equipment. Based on this plan, an individual drawing for each production is created. During rehearsals, the plan is updated for every new set up. The master lighting plan consists of the hanging plot, one plan for the front of house, and one for the entire stage area.

Master lighting plan for Swan Lake ballet production at the Zurich Opera House © Martin Gebhardt, Zurich Opera House

Work on the stage begins about four weeks before the premiere of any given show. In this period, several plan versions are produced and released. After every rehearsal, the most recent changes are added to the plan.

Vectorworks: Flexible and Fast

Since the setup time for each production can sometimes be as short as three hours, it’s extremely important that plans be very detailed. Lilith Gardell produces plans in two formats using Vectorworks Spotlight: a hanging plot for the team leader in A3 paper size and plans in A4 for lighting technicians. The basic structure of the plan must be well thought through so that it’s easily readable even in the A4 paper size.

For Gardell, one of the most useful features in Vectorworks software is the Visibility tool. To control class visibility directly and visually in the plan is much more efficient than having to work with a long list of classes in the Navigation palette. This is particularly advantageous when cleaning up external plans with unknown structures, foreign-language plans, or countless classes after DWG import. Using this tool, elements of the drawing that are not needed for the lighting plan can be quickly and easily hidden.

Lilith Gardell, assistant to the Head of Lighting, Zurich Opera House

Gardell also values the extensive Spotlight libraries that can be supplemented as needed with her own symbols. “If you get yourself intensively familiar with the program right from the start, and create a well-structured standard lighting plan for your theater, then you save yourself a lot of time in the long term,” says Gardell.

Detail for flybar 44 from the internal hanging plot for Swan Lake, Zurich © Martin Gebhardt, Zurich Opera House

Summertime is Renovation Time

Extensive renovation measures take place during the summer break at the opera house. Of the many projects that took place during the summer of 2016, one was the re-equipment of the lighting bridge. This means that the standard lighting plan, as well as the plans for all show revivals in the following season, needed to be adapted for the new equipment, including the opera house’s oldest production in their current repertoire, which comes from the 1994-95 season.

In the standard lighting plan, each year’s renovation has its own design layer in order to better document the history of reconstruction and to more easily update lighting designs from other periods of the renovation. Beginning with the 2016-17 season, there will be an entirely new layer for the refitted lighting bridge.

To easily include the changes made during lighting rehearsals in the plan, Gardell created an invisible design layer labeled “unused” that is hidden in all sheet layer viewports. That way, unused lighting instruments are stored and hidden on this layer, rather than deleted.

Often, it’s decided that particular lighting instruments won’t be used, only to have that decision reversed in following rehearsals. The layers of these lighting instruments are then changed from the “unused” layer back to their original layer to quickly reinsert them into the plan, which means Gardell doesn’t have to reinsert and re-label lighting instruments, allowing for quick and easy adaptions to decisions made during the rehearsal process.

Swan Lake plan and content library within Vectorworks Spotlight software

 Guest Performances: From Zurich into the World

The opera house’s productions are acclaimed in Switzerland and internationally. 

Every year, productions from the Ballett Zurich are performed on different theater stages across the globe. In addition, operas are often co-produced internationally with other theaters.

In order to accomplish this, both staff and materials from Zurich are dispatched to various countries around the world. In recent years, for example, guest performances took place in Edinburgh, Scotland; Oslo, Norway; Milan, Italy; Moscow, Russia; Bogotá, Colombia; Mexico City, Mexico; and Tel Aviv, Israel.

Co-production of Swan Lake between the Zurich Opera House and the Teatro alla Scala Milano in Italy © Carlos Quezada

Swan Lake at the Teatro alla Scala Milano

One of the highlights of the 2015-16 season was the ballet Swan Lake. The co-production with the Teatro alla Scala Milano was performed in Zurich for four months and then for two weeks in Milan. Under the musical direction of Rossen Milanov, Alexei Ratmansky, currently one of the biggest names in choreography,  reconstructed the 1895 Pepita/Iwanow version of Swan Lake and revived the piece in its original form. Martin Gebhardt was responsible for the lighting design for this feat.

For the production in Milan, the lighting plot was adapted to suit the local conditions and lighting equipment. Gebhardt sketched the changes by hand in the original plans for the stage in Milan, and Gardell transferred these sketches, along with the additional spots, into a drawing with Vectorworks Spotlight. In Zurich, Swan Lake will be revived from March 2017 onwards. 

Preliminary plan for Milan © Martin Gebhardt, Zurich Opera House

Innovation is Essential

For Gebhardt, it’s imperative that the opera house always be open to new developments and changes. With a young team, an innovative work style, and flexibility, the lighting designer counts on state of the art technology in terms of both hardware and software. As the leading opera house in Switzerland, the Zurich Opera House is widely regarded as a pioneer of new technologies.

Complex, two-storied stage set for the opera “Il Viaggio a Reims” © Monika Rittershaus 


Profiled Firm:
Zurich Opera House
Falkenstrasse 1, 8008
Zurich, Switzerland

Photos and images courtesy of Carlos Quezada, Dominic Büttner, Monika Rittershaus, Martin Gebhardt, and the Zurich Opera House.

Zurich Opera House Staff
Director: Andreas Homoki
Ballet Director: Christian Spuck
Technical Director: Sebastian Bogatu
Head of Lighting: Martin Gebhardt

Original text and publication by:
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Original text and publication by:
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