The opening of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House on Friday, Oct. 23, brought out the glitzy and glamorous side of Dallas society. It was a night filled with excitement and anticipation, and the new house did not disappoint.
“We had the big hitters from Dallas here last night,” said Maestro Graeme Jenkins during a morning-after press conference. “And while I feel, yes, that the most important date in the company's history is 21 November 1957, when [Maria] Callas came out on the stage at Music Hall, I think it's fair to say the next most important date was last night.”
Dr. Kern Wildenthal, president of The Dallas Opera, commented on the importance of the evening and the support of the citizens of Dallas.
“Last night was something we've been waiting for for 50 years. It exceeded all our expectations,” he said. “Dallas turned out in a way financially and emotionally that really is unprecedented. Most of these things, including the Meyerson [symphony hall], are primarily government money supplemented by private dollars. This project was over 90 percent privately funded, and a third of those dollars came from people who had no history of interest or funding of opera or theater or ballet. It's because the people of Dallas wanted Dallas to have something that they could be proud of.”
The press conference also featured the Winspear's English architect, Spencer de Gray of Foster + Partners; Bob Essert, an American now living in London, of Sound Space and Design; and John Gage, the opera's production manager.
“The overall concept behind the design was to try and breakdown barriers between the inside and the outside, but more importantly, to make this a welcoming building for everybody,” said de Gray. “If the outside is welcoming, by contrast, the auditorium is the reverse. It’s very, very tight.”
De Gray said that the idea behind using the horseshoe plan, which has been used by opera houses for centuries, was to “create as strong a relationship between the audience and the performances as we could possibly manage.
“Everything we have done in the auditorium has been done to bring the audience as close to the performance as possible. Last night, I think we saw how well it worked.”
De Gray was referring to the opening night’s performance of “Otello” by Giuseppe Verdi, which has, along with the venue, received raves from audience and opera officials alike.
“After many years of seeing and hearing opera in ‘the barn’ [State Fair Music Hall], it was a wonderful experience to see and hear opera in a building designed from the ground up for opera,” said Tom Council, voice teacher and choral director in Dallas for over 30 years, and who served as an usher for the opera during his college years at Southern Methodist University. “You could hear the slightest vocal note, and the forte notes from solos, chorus and orchestra were breath-taking. At the beginning of Act IV, with just a solo instrument playing softly – you would barely be able to hear that [at Music Hall] but in the Winspear, everything is heard.”
Council’s wife, Winifred, also a voice teacher, who sang with the Dallas Opera Chorus for 10 years and performed some smaller rolls in a couple of operas, was impressed with the sound coming from the opera’s chorus.
“As a former chorus member, I experienced the vastness of the Music Hall, and trying to be heard in that kind of space is certainly overwhelming,” Mrs. Council said. “The chorus is a highlight of The Dallas Opera and they sounded magnificent in the new space. Dallas can surely be proud of such a wonderful performing venue.”
Maestro Jenkins said, “I can say honestly I think it is the most singer-friendly auditorium for the opera that I know in that when a chord from the stage or the pit rings out, it just has this added enhancement.”
Opening night was proof that the Winspear acoustics were tweaked to near perfection.
“You could hear from the quality of the low E natural, the double bass, when Otello comes in, that pianissimo rings right all the way through,” Maestro Jenkins said. “The gift we've been given is extraordinary. And it’s thanks to Spence (de Gray) and Bob (Essert).”
Dr. Wildenthal was equally enthusiastic in his praise of the men who designed the hall and the sound.
“We were blessed in this situation in which we had an architect and an acoustician who both loved the art form and who I think loved working with each other,” Dr. Wildenthal said. “And the sense of optimism and cooperation and the feeling that at last, 50 years on, we were going to have a venue that could showcase the talent we already knew was here has made everybody enthusiastic.”
According to acoustician Essert, his job was to “welcome the audience into the world of the performers, taking the orchestra and the singers right into the audience’s heart. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Strange as it may seem, silence played a critical part in getting the acoustics for the hall just right.
“Don’t underestimate silence,” Essert explained. “To make it quiet, we worked with mechanical engineers. In some halls, you can actually hear the hum of the air conditioning, which is why we went with the under-floor ventilation system.”
Other features used to achieve the most resonant sound possible were hard surfaces. There are no carpets in the hall, no heavy drapes and the walnut flooring is placed directly onto the concrete slab with no padding between.
“These things absorb sound,” Essert said. “And we want to deliver all the sounds to the listeners.”
One of the choices the opera had to make was whether to retain the surtitles (translation screen above the stage) or to put titles on the back of each seat on a screen.
“I’m a fan of surtitles,” de Gray said. “If the titles are on the back of the seat in front of you, you have to keep changing your focus, which can be tiring. The flickering of the screen and your neighbor’s screen is very distracting.”
Individual screens work very well in Santa Fe, where the pitch of the rows is not as steep as in the Winspear. At the Winspear, especially in the upper tiers, the seat in front of you is substantially lower than yours, and trying to follow the action would be an obvious distraction from the performance.
One of the main features of the new venue is the distinctive red glass drum that completely encircles the venue.
“One of the reasons for the red drum is that it completely contains the fly tower,” de Gray said during a backstage tour. “It’s all contained in the red drum.”
A fly tower houses a system of ropes, counterweights and pulleys designed to allow a technical crew to quickly move set pieces, lights and microphones on and off stage by “flying” them in from a large opening above the stage.
“The fly tower is critical to the flexibility of the building,” de Gray pointed out. “The opera hasn’t had that flexibility until last night.”
One of the reporters asked de Gray, “Given the lack of enthusiasm in the state of Texas for Communisim, I wonder why you chose red?”
After the laughter subsided, de Gray answered, “Red is a color much associated with the opera. And, we thought we would use the traditional red on the outside as a beacon for the performing arts district. The heart of it, as you will.”
Bill Winspear, the Dallas manufacturer who wrote the initial $42 million check for a new opera house, died before the completion of the project. However, he was instrumental in picking the material and the color of the Texas-made drum.
“We tried all sorts of materials,” de Gray said. “I remember we had a whole array of panels outside and then we looked at glass and we knew that it was the right material. I remember Bill Winspear being absolutely estatic about the red glass.”
Maestro Jenkins believes the Winspear will allow Dallas to compete with opera companies like San Francisco and Chicago.
“There is no stopping us. The more the word gets out in the artistic community, singers will want to come here,” he said. “They will not have to bark to be heard. And if I can keep a soft pedal in the orchestra, it’s going to be incredible.”
Suzanne Calvin, director and manager of media for The Dallas Opera, believes the opening of the Winspear has put Dallas on the cultural map.
“Eveyone here knows that in the world of culture, there is a line of demarcation that separates a truly cultural city from one that is a wannabe. I think one of those lines is a great opera house. I think no city can aspire to cultural greatness without a truly great opera company and a truly great opera house. Dallas now has them both. Dallas has arrived.”
Check out Monday’s News-Telegram for a complete review of the Dallas Opera's opening night production of “Otello” and helpful hints for getting to and from the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House.
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