By Richard S. Ginell
CALIFORNIA — If the performing arts in general are supposed to be in retreat during the 21st century, you would never know it, judging from the number of new concert spaces that have been popping up. There always seems to be enough money around to put up these palaces for the arts (as opposed to diminishing funds for the things that occupy those sparkling new stages). Two of them opened in Northern and Southern California in March in little more than a week — each with an emphasis on the vocal arts, but with design and acoustical philosophies that are miles apart.
First, San Francisco Opera has a new performance space in the War Memorial Veterans Building next door to its War Memorial Opera House home in San Francisco’s Civic Center. The new facility, the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera’s Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, is the home base of the company’s recently launched experimental series SF Opera Lab, one of outgoing SF Opera general director David Gockley’s valedictory projects.
With SF Opera Lab, SF Opera seems to be following in the footsteps of the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox and Los Angeles Opera’s recent offsite experimental productions downstate, which are attempting to attract new and younger audiences with variations on the concert experience at popular prices. Presumably they have their eyes on the swarms of affluent young people strolling around the adjacent Hayes Valley neighborhood on weekend nights. “We’re endeavoring to find the formula that works,” said Gockley at the lecture before the inaugural concert of SF Opera Lab’s first season on March 11.
What they’ve done is convert the fourth floor of the Veterans Building — for 60 years the home of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art — into a new headquarters with office spaces, lecture and reception rooms, a gallery of photos from SF Opera’s long history, and a 299-seat theater. The rooms still look like the halls of an old-line art gallery. Covering much of one wall of the lecture hall is a fascinating giant painting entitled “That’s Opera!” (donated by a friend of SF Opera music director Nicola Luisotti), where a collage of personalities from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Valery Gergiev looms over the room.
Yet despite the august surroundings, the Taube Atrium Theater is essentially a contemporary black-box-type facility, designed for multiple configurations and seating patterns. The theater’s principal configuration is a raked portable grandstand; the seats are nicely padded and, significantly, each seat has its own cup holder as if this were a movie theater. Obviously, SF Opera is shooting for a more casual concertgoing experience, and the room is capable of being reconfigured for cabaret-like situations. Like SoundBox, the Taube is equipped with a Meyer Sound Constellation System for acoustical simulations and enhancement; SF Opera claims to be the first opera company to make use of it.
We were assured that SF Opera Lab’s inaugural event, a performance of Schubert’s downcast song cycle Winterreise (the very first performance in the Taube was a Schwabacher Debut recital on Feb. 28), would not be typical of what to expect, being a big-ticket item ($125 per seat). But since this was the multimedia interpretation of Winterreise that the great Schubert baritone Matthias Goerne has been touring since its 2014 premiere at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, it met Gockley’s directive that all SF Opera Lab performances have a theatrical aspect.
While Goerne, in excellent voice throughout his range, probed ever more deeply into Schubert’s spurned lover’s snowy wanderings, and while Salzburg Festival artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser laid down a gently-carpeted piano accompaniment, William Kentridge’s bleak, often abstract video images drifted or stood stock still in a parallel universe. Shown on a white backdrop littered with scraps of paper and pages from music scores, the images occasionally mirrored the moods of the music and less often, the texts. A recurring motif was a human figure walking through a dictionary. For “Das Wirtshaus,” Kentridge pictured what looked like a lynching; a more appropriate soundtrack would have been Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Since the room was kept dark, no supertitles were provided, and the identities of the songs were only sporadically flashed onscreen, the distancing effect was deliberate.
There seems to be a recurring take-away from most of the “video-enhanced” installations with classical pieces that I’ve experienced: the power of the music was not lessened, but not particularly heightened, either. Nevertheless, I walked away from the performance completely absorbed in the song cycle’s haunted mood — and that’s really all that counts.
As for the sound of the room, the Meyer Sound system — which has already proven its breakthrough value in every prior installation I’ve experienced — is going to need some toning down and fine-tuning in this setting. The sound was a bit larger than life, with too much resonance in the mid-bass, which may be enhancing for certain situations but not this one, and especially when you have a baritone of the caliber of a Goerne. Sometimes, when Goerne sounded a fortissimo, you could hear unnatural excess electronic reverberation on the voice’s decay. When he turned away from the audience to face the screen, the sound was accordingly distant. They’ll get it right, with everything being variable in this system.
Eight nights later, on March 19, just steps away from the city of Orange’s historic, old-timey downtown deep within Orange County, Chapman University opened its 1,044-seat Musco Center For The Arts. They weren’t shy about it, staging an all-stops-pulled-out gala benefit concert starring none other than Plácido Domingo, Chapman adjunct professor Milena Kitic, and a host of Chapman vocal alumni that included distinguished names like Deborah Voigt (class of ’78) and Stacey Tappan (class of ’95).
Outwardly, the Musco Center looks like your standard, square-cut campus performing arts building, sunk into the ground in order to comply with Orange’s historic district ordinances, with a lawned plaza that slopes downward toward the main lobby entrance and that can be used for outdoor concerts. Unlike the adapted San Francisco facility, the Musco Center is completely new, and it, too, is meant to be a multi-purpose room.
The interior of the hall appears to be designed primarily as a medium-small opera house — and it is a jewel of a room, with an orchestra pit that is unusually large (up to 70 players) for a space of this size, two horseshoe-shaped balconies, side boxes that remind one of San Francisco’s Davies Hall, and a proscenium wide enough to accommodate almost any opera. Unseen at the premiere was a 55-ton “flying” orchestral shell that can be broken into seven pieces and lifted upwards into the overhead grid when not in use. The hall seems to have all the electronic bells and whistles that you would want in new performing spaces these days, including robotic swivel cameras, surround speakers, adjustable acoustics, and the technology to stream live performances to and from the hall.
A quick look at the stat sheet revealed the welcome news that Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics designed the hall’s acoustics — and one’s hopes immediately went up. Toyota, of course, was the mastermind behind Walt Disney Concert Hall’s knife-sharp acoustics and subsequently those of other successful new California halls, like the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford and the Soka Performing Arts Center in nearby Aliso Viejo. The Musco doesn’t look like Toyota’s other California halls; the seating arrangement is traditionally forward, not surround nor vineyard-style, and the shape is not that of a modified shoebox.
My impressions of how this new room sounds will have to be taken for what they’re worth since I was seated in the furthest back row of the orchestra section, right next to the sound board and under the overhang, and with no chance to move anywhere else in the sold-out hall. Fortunately, the seats back there are elevated so the sound projects better than it might for those down on the orchestra floor. But there was no way that I could sense the “air” around the instruments and voices as I would if I had been seated out in the open.
Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra under John DeMain sounded clear, realistic, detailed, and just warm enough — all characteristics of Toyota halls — if a bit boxed in from where I was sitting. They played Bernstein’s Candide Overture at the start, which I had just heard from the same orchestra the night before in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A. The overture sounded better and fuller in every facet from the Musco pit than in the Chandler.
The curtain then rose to a spectacular ballroom set lit in electric blue from which the entire cast, with Domingo in the lead, sang a rousing “Libiamo” from La Traviata. Domingo, who can still do the tenor honors in “Libiamo” jolly well, took center stage for Traviata‘s baritone showcase, “Di Provenza il mar,” pouring his soul into those well-worn lines, easily filling the new hall with spine-tingling sound (and that’s not exaggerating). Later, in front of the curtain (which was named for him), Domingo sang the Three Tenors-era crowd-pleaser “Granada” steadily with plenty of amplitude. I had also just heard Domingo at the Chandler the night before in a rare duo date with Renée Fleming — and he, too, sounded better in the Musco, more resonant and direct.
Voigt, in one of Elisabeth’s arias from Tannhäuser and “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess, also easily filled the room with her moderately wide vibrato, and the parade of younger singers and the excellent Chapman University Singers and Alumni Choir rattled the rafters. From where I was sitting, I could not sense much in the way of reverberation, but neither could a few other patrons whom I queried who were sitting elsewhere. Amplification was employed with singer Weston Olson in a selection from Les Miz, and the sound quality on the voice was quite good, peaking just a bit in the red during climaxes. So we know already that this is going to be a good hall for the voice, and that’s outstanding news for Chapman’s vocal department.
In the coming months and years, both SF Opera and Chapman will have to deal with the “morning after” syndrome for new halls: how do you follow big splashy inaugurals with presentations that will keep putting people in the seats?
To fill out the spring season, SF Opera Lab plans a short, eclectic series of programs, like Ana Sokolović’s chamber opera Svadba-Wedding (Apr. 2-10), a screening of The Triplets of Belleville Cine-Concert with live performance of the soundtrack (Apr. 14-23), and “Voigt Lessons,” a one-woman show with, of course, Deborah Voigt (May 6 and 8). In February and March 2017, the Taube will house The Source, Ted Hearne’s new oratorio about Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning of WikiLeaks notoriety, and March 2017 promises a production of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine with soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci.
SF Opera Lab also plans a number of “Pop-Up” events that will take place in unpredictable places around the Bay Area. One of the notions that has grabbed impresarios is that young people increasingly demand visual accompaniment with their music, and there looks to be plenty of that at SF Opera Lab.
For Chapman, which finally has what looks like a world-class hall for the first time, the Musco Center ought to precipitate a vast expansion of activity, including alliances with other nearby organizations (one of them, the Pacific Symphony, publicly welcomed the Musco to Orange County in a magnanimous press release) and certainly Los Angeles Opera, which supplied the opening gala with its orchestra, stage director (Trevore Ross), and megastar general director (Domingo).
For now, the rest of the season looks fairly modest, if busy, with things like Steven Mayer playing Ives’ Concord Sonata and baritone William Sharp singing Ives songs (April 3), a Puccini double-header (Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) from Opera Chapman (April 22-24), the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra (May 3), and baritone Rod Gilfry (May 7). Student activities are definitely going to be given some priority, and we don’t know yet how the hall will sound with an orchestra onstage. But if all turns out well and word gets around, add another major link to the West Coast touring map.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.