Project: Nevill Holt Opera House

Witherford Watson Mann have transformed a 17th Century stable block in Leicestershire to give the Nevill Holt Opera a permanent home

Words by Emily Martin

Opening last summer, the Nevill Holt Opera House is located in the elegantly converted 17th-century stable block of the Nevill Holt Estate, Leicestershire. Nevill Holt Opera (NHO), which is supported by the David Ross Foundation (DRF), was previously housed in a temporary tented structure within the stable block, which hid the interior of the historic structure as well as causing other issues including rain and wind noise, problems with performance acoustics and technical limitations. The decision to have a more permanent home was taken.

The transformation of the Grade II* listed building fell to Stirling Prize-winning architecture practice Witherford Watson Mann (WWM), which won the contract, along with heritage architecture practice Julian Harrap. Sound Space Vision (SSV), theatre planning and acoustics specialist, was also recruited to form part of the WWM team.

The resulting space features timber battens, which lend a perceived simplicity of the design and is one of the hall’s most defining features. But great care has been taken to conceal the technical and cabling infrastructure within the architecture, while building a technically proficient and adaptable theatre. With timber battens in a lattice pattern relief on the balcony fronts, sound is appropriately scattered, and by careful attention to the thickness and detailing of the timber, acoustical resonance and warmth convey the subtle musical nuances of the artists.

Owing to the height restrictions of the heritage building, a very simple timber roof structure rests on historic parapet walls. SSV director Mike Elliott elaborates: ‘Within the constraint of the roof height, SSV designed and specified a dedicated lighting, sound and AV cable infrastructure capable of supporting the specialist requirements while providing future-proofing for expansion and changing technology.’

The WWM team worked through several designs for the auditorium, settling on a gently curved form. The stalls and wraparound balcony form the horseshoe-shape favoured by opera companies for its three dimensional dynamic between the performers, the balcony and the stalls.

Intimate and embracing, this shape affords superb sightlines for patrons. And, as SSV founding director Bob Essert explains: ‘The side balconies are particularly helpful in drawing audiences nearer to the stage and giving acoustical support as the sound bounces off the balconies’ undersides and front panels. The patterns of timber battens on the balcony fronts scatter high-frequency sound throughout the auditorium.’

The layered timber enclosure, along with a green roof, a double-glazed skylight, and sound-attenuating air vents keep out the noise of wind, rain and the occasional aircraft that have been part of previous NHO seasons. The stable block’s exposed stone walls, additional infrastructure, materials, the curved form and size of the auditorium and orchestra pit, as well as sound attenuation systems and controls, all combine to create an opera house that delivers a first-rate performance environment.

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