The multimillion rand renovations and innovative expansions to Port Elizabeth‘s much loved grand lady of theatre, The Opera House, are on track for a November unveiling, lead structural engineer JP Mulder of AfriCoast Consulting Engineers has confirmed.
The oldest theatre of its kind, not just in Africa but in the southern hemisphere, the Opera House is a Victorian icon and all involved in this important heritage building’s overhaul have been at pains to preserve its historic architectural features, while at the same time expanding the facilities with strikingly modern additions.
For civil and structural engineering experts AfriCoast Consulting Engineers, the project has been as much a labour of love as an exciting and technologically challenging undertaking.
“The renovations will extend the life of one of our national treasures for another century and ensure that the Opera House continues to contribute to a vibrant inner-city culture,” said Bill Emslie, AfriCoast Chief Operating Officer. AfriCoast was part of the Matrix Architects’ Consortium Joint Venture appointed for the makeover.
The building houses two theatres: The Barn, which is a cabaret venue, and the Main Stage, which was built for ballet, opera and musicals. Both facilities have been brought up to date with substantial repairs and renovations to existing features along with innovative extensions that enlarge the spaces and add a 21st century twist to the traditional architecture.
“Responsible treatment of this historic building has been a priority throughout this project. Heritage approval for the construction work was sought and granted from the Provincial Heritage Resources Agency (PHRA) well in advance,” said Mulder.
The team followed a rigorous preparation process, which included a Heritage Impact Assessment and numerous public participation meetings. The upgrade included repairs and replacement of soft furnishings like carpets and wallpaper, as well as an exciting extension and makeover of the foyer and The Barn cabaret theatre.
In addition, new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, lighting, fire detection and an all-new fire escape route have been installed to ensure that the PE Opera House is fully compliant with the latest building and energy regulations.
“Innovative construction engineering has been a necessary feature of this project from the outset,” Mulder said, “beginning with the careful excavation of the natural hillside within which the huge building is tightly wedged. The topography presented us with tight spaces and tricky heights: approximately 10m x 10m, on a 12m slope angled at more than 45 degrees.”
Thorough geotechnical explorations were undertaken to ensure the stability of the embankment and the rock’s weight-bearing potential. The stability of the existing walls, more than 120 years old, was also considered, and special support systems designed to ensure that they did not collapse during the demolition works.
Also, instead of risking high-vibration blasting to make space for the extension, the more than 2000 cubic metres of rock was broken out using pneumatic hammers. The excavated slope has been stabilised by cost-effective gabion boxes as well as steel tension cables and mesh fencing, which creates a parachute-like protection for the building from any possible rock fall.
Inside, the suspended Gallery in the Main Theatre has been given extra leg-room and the timeworn timber work completely replaced.
“Retaining and protecting as much of the original finish as possible – from pressed ceilings and tiles to ornate fretwork – was critical to the project. The challenge throughout was to ensure that there was no damage to these fragile elements of the interior, while at the same time stripping much of the building and undertaking heavy duty construction and alteration work,” Mulder said.
“The most visually striking additions have been to The Barn and foyer areas, which feature suspended clip-on boxes, glass walkways and chunky steel support columns that are in pleasing contract to the heavy but ornate character of the original building.”
History & Heritage: Did You Know?
The Opera House was built in 1892, before the construction of Port Elizabeth‘s railway line
The Victorian structure was built in 1892, two years before even the city’s railway line, on the old site of a gallows, where people once gathered to watch public hangings. According to legend, the theatre has seen two natural deaths and two murders in its 123 years – ghost tours may be taken by special request at midnight with only a torchlight to guide those brave souls down the dark corridors backstage.
For its first 16 years, the Opera House was illuminated by candles and limelight before being fitted with artificial lighting in the form of gas. Over the decades, the much loved building has made a significant contribution, not just to our country’s culture and the arts, but also to its history during the struggle years – South African starts like John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona and many more have called this theatre home. It was declared a national monument in 1980.
Today, aside from being a hub where artists and arts loving people meet, the Opera House provides a critical service in helping to create jobs for the performing arts and music industries, providing a place of professional support, mounting entertainment to complement Nelson Mandela Bay’s tourism industry, and also supporting Arts and Culture education at schools and tertiary levels.