New Opera Center In Seattle Makes Everyone A Player

The Seattle Opera’s inviting new center symbolizes the company’s determination to break down barriers.
(Photos by Sean Airhart, courtesy Seattle Opera)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – If the 1,670 visitors who attended the recent grand opening of Seattle Opera’s new “civic home” were any indication, the Opera Center is well on its way to fulfilling the 56-year old company’s mission to, in the words of Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang, “break down barriers that have previously kept people from being able to participate in opera.”

Located alongside and connected to Seattle Opera’s main performance venue, McCaw Hall, the center’s 105,000 square feet includes an ADA-accessible box office, administrative offices, multi-purpose performance and rehearsal studios, costume and wig shops, storage facilities, and more. With 20,000 square feet dedicated to community programming and education, including Tagney Jones Hall, a glass box design performance space intended for educational and community events, everything about the building proclaims inclusion.

The curious can peer into the building to see people at work in the costume shop as well as rehearsals in progress.

Not only can the public peer into ground-level Tagney Jones Hall from the outside, but it can also walk to the side of the building and watch people at work in the costume shop. People can even see rehearsals in progress as they park their cars; whether the lobby will offer camera feeds of rehearsals is under discussion. During some performances in Tagney, it will be possible to peer in from the outside.

Rehearsals will take place in three multi-purpose studios. The largest, which is the same size as McCaw Hall’s stage, has been mentioned as a possible site for some of the company’s community engagement operas. (These operas, which have been staged at multiple sites, have already tackled such potent issues as transgender identity and Japanese internment during World War II.) The two other studios, one named for former general director Speight Jenkins, can be used for community programs, youth operas, and events as well as voice and dance rehearsals.

The Opera Center’s message of integration and unity extends to members of the company and to the general public. “Now you can see the costume shop every day at work as you go up the inside staircase,” Lang said. “They were always there, but we never saw them unless we descended some very perilous steps that kept us apart in our old space. The architecture makes us feel much closer to each other. One staircase also separates rehearsal spaces from offices. It’s all miraculously close, with all the technical area around the corner and through a door. Without the narrow, precipitous stairs of our last, not-built-for-purpose space, it’s going to be a joy to drop down and see how rehearsals are doing. We have an elevator, but people seem to be taking the stairs.”

The architectural design supports collaboration, intentionally breaking down hierarchical structures.

As someone who has spent time in the huge, somewhat regal offices of San Francisco Opera’s former general director, David Gockley, and music director, Nicola Luisotti, I was struck by how relatively small Lang’s office seemed. When questioned about this, he responded, “The whole premise of our environment is to be of today, not to be of yesterday, with its huge sweeping offices. The architectural design supports working as a team and breaking down hierarchical structures. Because of various confidentiality things, we decided to have some individual offices. But opera is a collaborative art form, and the center’s design supports that collaboration.

“With our specific budget, I saw no need for an office bigger than 1 ¾ times the size of my other departmental directors. At the end of the day, we have a number of shared meeting rooms, so I can always move next door. Basically, we work at a desk and have a meeting table.”

Final plans for the center were formulated over a period of almost two years. Lang, who departs at the end of this season, has guided Seattle Opera through a major philosophical shift.

“An arts organization belongs first and foremost in the community where it’s intended to serve,” he said. “I see around the world a gradual shift from the globalization approach, where everyone wants to tell everyone else how good you are, to a more local model.”

As the company examined what is unique about Seattle and formulated its new strategic plan, it noted that 64 percent of its income comes from donors who live in the Puget Sound region. With the influx of tech giants Amazon and Microsoft, which have attracted a highly educated core of young people who have fundamentally transformed the character of a city once known as a base for Boeing, the military, and the University of Washington, Seattle Opera realized that it needed to respond to its changing audience and environment.

The Seattle Opera’s programming is being designed for an audience that has grown noticeably younger.

“Our mission statement says we want to be part of the lives of people who are working and living here,” Lang said. “We want to reflect what today’s Seattle is in all its aspects. We also know, from a big study about audiences and sustainability that the Wallace Foundation conducted with 25 organizations around the country, that our audiences are looking for productions based around ideas which affect them in their day-to-day lives.”

Lang’s comments brought to mind Seattle Opera’s next production, Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, as well as recent presentations of several operas from the core repertoire. The mountings of Madame Butterfly and Aida, for example, provided opportunities to sponsor potent community conversations about race, racial stereotypes, and gender roles and expectations. Large-scaled lobby displays that the audience was encouraged to view examined these issues while raising a host of questions. Just a few weeks after the center’s grand opening on Dec. 15, Il trovatore presented an occasion to examine the subjugation and abuse of women, and how terms such as “witch” are still used to degrade women who dare to exercise their power.

The new approach seems to be working. Lang said Seattle Opera’s audiences have grown considerably younger. Citing figures that show that their under-50 component, which was “forever” 25 percent of the company’s audiences, has grown to 45-50 percent in the span of three years, he also noted that 18 percent of the audience is now millennials.

“What has been most interesting and gratifying in the process of getting here is the way we have changed our own dialogue as part of the creative process for this new building,” Lang said. “When we first started, the dialogue centered around efficiency. As we transformed the way we see ourselves as a company, the architecture changed as well. Indeed, once we embraced the idea of opening ourselves up rather than hiding away, and began to develop new programs and partnerships, we realized that the architecture of the building could reflect the changed way that we see ourselves and see ourselves working. That’s been very gratifying.

“Had we built the building to the designs from 2007, it would have been very nice to arrive to, but it would have been the wrong building for the way the arts are today. So for a brief moment, as the arts continue to evolve, we have a building that absolutely reflects the sea change that the arts have taken in the last five years. That’s the most pleasing part of the process.”

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.