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Sunday, March 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opera

Home away from home: Seattle Opera plans its interim move to Mercer Arena

Seattle Times music critic

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Ever since last spring, Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins has stood up before every Seattle Opera audience in his regular post-performance chats, talking to opera fans - but not only about the opera they've just seen.

Jenkins has been discussing the company's upcoming move into the Mercer Arena, where Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet will present their productions during the nearly two-year renovation of the Opera House in the Seattle Center. The $125 million project will revamp, seismically upgrade and rebuild the Opera House into a state-of-the-art performance hall for the opera, ballet and other users.

But that means a season and a half in the Mercer Arena, the old hockey rink that now mostly hosts rock concerts. The venue will be as nice as the $6 million that is budgeted for the Arena fix-up can make it, but no one is entirely certain just how much of a silk purse can be made of this sow's ear. The move, slated for January 2002, may seem a long way off, but in terms of planning for opera and ballet companies, it's right around the corner.

After the Feb. 28 earthquake, there were initial concerns that the Opera House might have to be closed even sooner than anticipated. One performance of Seattle Opera's "Tosca" had to be rescheduled, and post-quake audiences entered through temporary scaffolding. Perry Cooper, of the Seattle Center public relations staff, said there were "some initial concerns about the entrance overhang," but that the temporary scaffolding is scheduled for removal. The interior of the Opera House also escaped damage. Cooper says, "We were very lucky."

Still, the renovation period will challenge both companies as never before:

• On a marketing level, they'll have to make sure their patrons move with them into the temporary facility, a move that's far from a foregone conclusion.

• As for artistic considerations, the companies will have to fulfill their pledges to keep to their current high standards, without compromising excellence in either sound or staging - despite the much greater technical limitations of the revamped Mercer Arena.

"We have some big challenges ahead," acknowledges PNB executive director David Brown.

"But I think that once people actually are in those seats in the Arena, they will find it will feel very much like the Opera House --and maybe even better."

One reason Brown feels sure his audiences will like the seats is that they'll be sitting in the very ones presently in use in the Opera House: the seats will be transferred to the Arena during the renovation. The number of seats will decline slightly - by 117 - to 2,900, which is also the number of seats in the future Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, as the Opera House will be called when it reopens in May 2003.

The architectural firm LMN (Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm), designers of Benaroya Hall, will reconfigure the 6,000-seat space along the lines of the Tanglewood Festival's celebrated Koussevitsky Music Shed (near Boston, in the Berkshire Mountains). The Arena stage will be elevated to the level of the current Seattle Opera House stage, and a pit will be created to accommodate an orchestra of 100 players.

Overhead canopy

An overhead canopy will reflect sound from the stage to the audience, and part of the existing ceiling grid will be opened up to the roof to allow more reverberation and resonance. About half of the Arena's huge present volume will be blocked off with a 75-foot-high wall running east and west, creating a box that's not too dissimilar from the Opera House in terms of dimensions and distances.

"The actual stage area will be a little bigger than the Opera House," PNB's Brown explains, "and other things will be very similar: the dance floor that we will bring in, the size of the proscenium, the distance from the stage, the slope to the orchestra floor. It may feel even better; it might seem more intimate (than the Opera House) without those balconies."

Inside the hall, ballet and opera audiences will encounter an unfamiliar spectacle: You'll be able to see every seat in the house. More than 1,000 of the 2,900 seats will be on that sloped "main floor" that connects with the balconies surrounding the space on three sides. Patrons in the side balconies will have to "turn their bodies in their seats slightly toward the stage," as Jenkins puts it.

Jenkins, always a man of considerable enthusiasm, promises the sightlines will be "great, even better than in the Opera House." Sightlines aside, however, nobody is expecting the revamped Arena to be plush or glamorous.

"I want it to be clean and acceptable, but it is an arena, not a theater," Jenkins explains.

"The money should go to the Opera House, not to an interim solution. Still, there will be a nice space on the second level for a patrons' room, and we will have a space for the lectures (by opera education director Perry Lorenzo, a popular speaker). There will be (projected) titles, just as in the Opera House."

There's one fairly vital respect in which the Arena is considerably superior to the Opera House. The restrooms accommodate about twice as many users, great news for women patrons who are weary of the 50-yard dash at opera and ballet intermissions.

Acoustics: the big unknown

Sound quality is vital for dance and opera performances, but it's far trickier in the latter case - where singers project their unamplified voices over the orchestra and into the ears of even the farthest-off opera fans in the uppermost tier. Not until the first opera dress rehearsal, when all the seats are filled and the performers are all assembled, will Seattle Opera and its patrons know what kind of sound they're getting in the renovated Arena.

From the beginning, Jenkins has warned opera fans that amplification may be necessary in the Arena. That's heresy in grand opera (though several companies are rumored to use microphones on occasion, few will admit to it). If it isn't necessary, "nobody will be happier than I," Jenkins adds.

Thomas Gerard of the LMN Architects firm also hopes amplification won't be necessary. Citing the Tanglewood facility, Gerard says the Arena is expected to "behave similarly to this outdoor venue, in that there will be an overhead reflective canopy created from the existing ceiling grid to reflect sound to the audience. Part of the grid will be opened up to the roof to allow more reverberation that creates a more resonant, rich and warm tone."

Fine-tuning the acoustics will be the Jaffe Holden Acoustics firm of Norwalk, Conn., together with Michael R. Yantis Associates in Seattle. The Jaffe firm has a distinguished track record in other venues, including Cleveland's newly reopened Severance Hall.

What about those set changes?

The big drawback for both the Opera and PNB is the lack of technical equipment for sets, specifically the inability to move the sets quickly to make quick changes in scenery. Jenkins already has selected and cast all but one of the eight operas the company will stage in the Arena, selecting operas with a minimum of set changes that still won't compromise the company's theatrical moxie. Because Seattle Opera is presenting the entire four-opera "Ring" cycle three times in August 2001, the remainder of the season will have only four operas. The first opera to follow the "Ring," Dvorak's "Rusalka," will be the last one in the Opera House. PNB's "Nutcracker" this December will be the last shows in the Opera House before the renovation.

After much debate, PNB artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell decided they didn't want to compromise the company's celebrated "Nutcracker" production with the technical limitations of the Arena.

Following the 2001 "Nutcracker" in the existing Opera House, the 2002 show is moving to the Paramount Theatre.

Musical chairs

When Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet move in, as many as 150 other users per year are going to have to move out of the Arena. Seattle Center PR chief Cooper says the current users of the facility are "trade shows, high-school graduations, girls' basketball finals, tae kwon do state championships, dog shows, expos, all kinds of events."

Most of those, Cooper says, will move into different facilities at the Seattle Center - principally KeyArena, which has a new modification making the huge, 16,000-seat space into something smaller and more intimate. A large black-curtained screen can close off the top level of the KeyArena so that only the lower bowl is in use, making the space suitable for events in the 3,000-7,000-seat range. Will the modifications made to the Arena stay on in the future? Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson says no.

"These are temporary improvements," Anderson explains.

"If they were going to be permanent, we would have to spend a lot more money on code-related requirements, including seismic and safety issues. The Mercer Arena is 73 years old, but there's still a lot of life in this old girl. I know what the San Francisco groups went through when the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House was renovated, and how disruptive that was. Frankly, we are fortunate to have a facility like this that can house Seattle's companies right next door while our Opera House is renovated."

War Memorial war story

Anderson is referring to the 20-month, $86 million repair job on the 3,176-seat, 1931-built San Francisco War Memorial Opera House in 1996-97, following damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. San Francisco Opera performed what critics called "a mixed season" in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the Orpheum Theatre.

In the former facility, the opera company presented seven works in a semicircular configuration, where muffled acoustics and skewed spatial dimensions for both singers and orchestra marred even the company's best efforts at staging.

San Francisco Ballet lost a shocking 50 percent of its subscriber base as it spent two seasons in exile, failing to find adequate accommodations across the bay in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. Technical and acoustical problems plagued most available sites. The company's "Nutcracker" - always a money-maker of the ballet world - was presented across town in the Palace of Fine Arts. Moving back to the War Memorial Opera House in 1997, with a televised gala and considerable fanfare, both the opera and ballet companies rebounded with seasons of celebration. But it's still uphill work at the San Francisco Ballet, where Alvin Henry (director of marketing and public relations) observes that "we're still rebuilding" the ranks of subscribers.

"A good chunk of them came back out of curiosity to see the Opera House that first year (after the reopening). But as you know, humans are creatures of habit. When the habit of attendance in the War Memorial Opera House was broken by the move, some of them found other activities elsewhere. I think Seattle may be luckier, because the (interim theater) is by the opera house. Our three theaters were all over the map. Even though we did open houses, let subscribers see their future seats and even change them, it was hard. The whole process was hard."

If we build it, will they come?

The PNB's Brown concurs that Seattle is fortunate to have the Arena nearby. Patrons can dine and park where they're used to dining and parking; they also can view progress to the Opera House. One big Arena-era drawing card will be dance and opera patrons' ability to get the desired seats when the Opera House reopens as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. Those who scorn the Arena are going to have a tough time sitting where they want to sit in MOM Hall. Current subscribers each year get first pick at the next year's seats. The fact that 117 current Opera House seats will be lost when the hall reopens in its new configuration is expected to heat up ticket demand considerably.

The addition of standing room in MOM Hall will mean both companies will be able, when the occasion warrants it, to add those "SRO" (standing room only) banners to ads and posters.

Finally, there's one hidden plus to the season and a half in the Arena: no rock concerts can take place next door during performances. Both companies have horror stories of sound leakage from mega-blasting rock groups performing in the Arena during Opera House events, but Jenkins' account of the American debut here of soprano Jane Eaglen is probably the worst.

"Jane had to sing her opening aria in 'Norma' - 'Casta diva,' one of the most challenging in all opera - without being able to hear a single note from the orchestra," recalls the director.

"All she could hear was the sound from the rock concert next door."

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