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Ancient Theater of Epidaurus

Driving around the Peloponnese this summer, my better half and I settled on paying a visit to one of the most epic places of the acoustics, the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus.

The Epidaurus geometry, similarly to the other ancient amphitheaters, can be roughly described by the semicircular shape in its base, which is in this case practically a bit more than a semicircle, considering the points where the koilon (grandstand) encloses it. Going uphill, the koilon has two parts, the first with 34 rows originally built in 4th century BCE, accepting 6.000 visitors, and the upper part, with a tiny bit steeper 21 rows, added in 2nd century BCE by Romans, increasing overall capacity to 14.000.

Also, an important part of all ancient theaters geometry, and thus their acoustics, was the height of the rows. Not all theaters had the same slope, but the rows were always higher than in the typical modern concert halls. In its time, Epidaurus' slope may be rather average than very steep.

And now for the event. There was no musical performance scheduled those days, but Sophocles' Oedipus, adapted to the present (by Maja Zade) and directed by Thomas Ostermeyer, appeared appealing anyway. We were 23rd row, so vertically somewhere in the center, and horizontally a bit of left of it.



And, it did not take long to realize Epidaurus' great acoustics – in fact, it was clear even before the performance started, just listening to the murmur of the crowd. The actors were actually amplified (likely by some well hidden lavalier microphones), but the amplification also sounded that good and natural, so for some time I even thought that the non-linearity I heard in the frequency domain (somewhat emphasized mid-upper bass) might come from the non-linear acoustical amplification by a linear-horn-alike amphitheater shape.

At one moment however all the electronics failed, and for several minutes we were privileged to listen to the actors "unplugged". And then they paused performance, to reboot the system.

So, is Epidaurus, anciently designed for 14.000 visitors, acoustically that good so you can hear the actors clearly at any place? Taking into account our position, I guess I can relatively trustworthy report that it is possible – but only if actors speak very loudly. Dare I say, if they shout.

Some say, the ancient Greek actors were practicing to speak loudly, and the masks they wore did not serve only to make facial expressions obvious, but they also acted as small megaphones. No ancient theater masks were saved to our days though, so we will never know this for sure. But finally, nowadays the theater acting must be also exaggerated ("theatrical"), both aurally and visually, or it likely gets unnoticed, even in small theaters.

So, the tale about the acoustics that makes the normal speech at the stage intelligible straight to the highest row is apparently a myth. But Epidaurus' outstanding acoustics is beyond doubt. Audibility is definitely great, as is the linearity and decay, so it is a pleasure to be there and to listen to. Actors, amplified actors, or amplified music, or possibly anything.

And with this good performance, and magic night atmosphere and nature surrounding the theater, even the rain, threatening and occasionally falling for a notable part of the evening, could not spoil the impression.



For more objective data, please have a search for Epidaurus acoustic measurements, there are several articles available online. And it looks like the interest in the acoustic properties of these ancient beauties increased recently, so it is a sort of a modern topic. These studies sometimes came to the opposite conclusions. One of them says the Epidaurus’ decay is too short to be good for large orchestras. Hopefully, I will check this once.



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