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Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Opening Gala

- Featuring Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera

by Azlan Ezaddin

June 28, 2003 -- Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, WA

It is very possible and would not be at all surprising if Marion Oliver McCaw (MOM) Hall becomes the latest ballet and opera place that serious balletomanes and opera buffs add to their list of pilgrimages.

Regardless of the politics and the criticisms -- and there have been many -- this state of the art facility boasts an unprecedented list of technical achievements in theater design, including sound and lighting, all optimized specifically to enchance the ballet and opera experience for both the audience as well as the performers. It can't get better than that.

When Seattle Symphony Artistic Director Gerald Schwarz led the PNB Orchestra from the pit in the world premiere of William Bolcom's Seattle Overture, dedicated to the Hall's opening, the sound was so crisp and every note so discernible that the previous opera house (and other opera houses for that matter) sounded like a tunnel by comparison. The design team achieved this technical feat partially by ensuring the surfaces within the theater remained "hard" through hardwood floors and bare (though painted) concrete. By the time the curtain opened to reveal English soprano Jane Eaglen on stage, goose bumps were rising in anticipation. When she sang the "Dich, teure Halle" from Tannhauser, each syllable projected so clearly from such an impressive voice that the goose bumps gave way to awe. Even the applause following Eaglen's performances seemed rich and lush.

Speaking after the performance, Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera Artistic Director, beamed, "The sound in the theatre has two prominent characteristics: warmth and clarity... You can hear every word, which is important in opera."

Eaglen nodded her head in agreement. According to Jenkins, the sound qualities also extend to the smaller lecture hall housed within the building, "I was in that room today and I could hear every sound clearly even in the back." This is, of course, what the Seattle Center Foundation, which oversees the Hall along with all the other structures in Seattle Center, was counting on -- it's a facility they can rent out for single-purpose functions.

Warm, clear sound wasn't the only goal of the Hall's design team. Lighting took centerstage along with the Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in the finale from Balanchine's Symphony in C,  which, at only two minutes and thirty seconds, was tantalizingly short. It was enough, however, to show off the entire company (superbly coached by Artistic Director Francia Russell) and the lighting, now mounted in a bulkhead just forward of the stage, which made the dancers and Mark Zappone's costumes come to life. It was as if another dimension had been added to the work. A casual and lingering review of the lighting from the onstage perspective also revealed that the lighting is soft and, perhaps because of the angle, not blinding. Lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli must be more than pleased with the new setup.

Patricia Barker, who shone in Symphony in C, was remarkably luscious in the In Trutina pas de deux from Kent Stowell's Carmina Burana, with Olivier Wevers matching in technique and artistry. Combining the talents of both PNB and the Opera (soprano Catherine Haight sang the libretto by Carl Orff), this work is a modern, but lyrical, ballet which was designed to maximize the combined music, text and movement for theatrical effect. The passionate choreography for the pas de deux was made all the more intimate by the audience's proximity to the dancers and the extremely clear sightlines between the house and the stage. It was as if the audience were being invited into a private bedroom to witness a passionate romance. Barker noted, "I felt close to the audience. I could see people clearly in the first few rows."

The ever young Barker was also enthusiastic about the stage and the theatre as a whole. "Having been at the Arena [the Company's temporary stage home during the opera house renovation] for so long, some of the dancers felt as if they were visiting this wonderful theater and wanted to come back to perform in it. We had to remind ourselves this was now our home. I hope newer dancers joining the company understand how amazing this theater is."

Stowell, Russell's husband and co-Artistic Director, provided a second work for the night's ballet portions of the program. In the delightfully swinging finale of Silver Lining, the dancers romped through Jerome Kern's score, none more so than Wevers, Melanie Skinner and Carrie Imler who joyfully embodied the loose jazziness of the music. The choreography was more than matched by David Murin's glamorously chic costumes and Ming Cho Lee's flashy backdrops reminiscent of the roaring '20s. The backdrops and the quick set changes from number to number underlined yet another remarkable technical feature of the theater: the multiple layers of rigging and the vastness of the backstage. "My jaw dropped when I saw the backstage area," claimed PNB Media Relations Manager Judy Kitzman.

In another Balanchine ballet, the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the stars were the munchkin bugs and fairies of the PNB School, under the direction of Russell. They were obviously unfazed by the importance of the evening and in fact seemed to enjoy themselves on the proscenium that they shared with their more established co-performers, namely Le Yin and Jodie Thomas. Yin danced the role of Oberon with an attack and consistency that I had not witnessed before from him and Thomas was sprightly as the lead butterfly. Chalnessa Eames, Rachel Foster, Mara Vinson and Kara Zimmerman were the other graceful butterflies. However, it was the kids who stole the show. Beyond the adorable factor, the students have all the hallmarks of professional training that both bodes well for the future and makes for good public relations.

And good public relations is especially necessary at this time for MOM Hall and the Seattle Center. Criticism has come in, quite loudly, at times from various corners of the city of Seattle, especially regarding the funding. At the time of the gala, the fund was still officially shy of their goal by $5 million (however word went around during the gala that there was a $2 million anonymous donation on the eve of the opening). Among the factors that drew ire from some segments of the community was an almost $28 million bridge loan  from the City of Seattle, proposed by Mayor Greg Nickels, with an uncertain timeline for repayment.

Slick, feel-good videos, titled Vision, Passion and Future, produced by the team of Tony Grob and Meg McHutchinson were screened to a highly sympathetic audience. The vision and the passion conveyed in the videos are no doubt genuine and tangible, but the future of the Hall may well depend on the right marketing and public relations approach from the top down to involve the entire community.

My opera-loving cab driver remarked the next morning, "I didn't realize the Opera House opening was such a big deal." Hopefully, she and others will be enticed in by the colorful, self-illuminating latticework and flowing waters designed to invite visitors through the Hall's esplanade and into Seattle Center.

Please visit the forum for a discussion on the Opera House Renovation and the Opening Gala .

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