Singing in Seattle
The newly renovated, city-owned Marion Oliver McCaw Hall — home of the Seattle Opera — opened in August with a production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The project’s completion signifies residents’ continuing dedication to what, in 1927, Mayor Bertha Landes called “the wonder of pagentry.”
Since the 1880s, when saloonkeeper James Osborne left the city $20,000 to build a civic auditorium and David and Louisa Denny donated land designated for “public use forever,” Seattle has tried to construct a suitable space for a variety of artistic performances. Delayed by a series of events, including the 1889 Seattle fire, the Gold Rush and World War I, Seattle finally began construction of the building in 1927, when funding was provided by a $900,000 bond measure. For the 1962 World’s Fair, the city spearheaded a $3 million public-private project to renovate the center, focusing on transforming the flat-floor auditorium into an opera house with two balconies.
By the 1990s, the building required seismic improvements and renovations to its interior. City leaders worked with Seattle Center, Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet — which also uses the hall — and other community groups to complete redesign plans, which included expanding the backstage that had not been updated since its inception. The $127 million project was funded by $55 million in city, county and state money, and $72 million in private funds.
LMN Architects, based in Seattle, wanted to create the hall as a focal point of the city’s main tourist area, Seattle Center. The Kreielsheimer Promenade features a 65-foot curving glass wall and a 17,800-square-foot entry plaza. Nine, 30-foot-tall metal scrims project out of and into the glass wall — linking the outdoor plaza to the indoor lobby — and reflect four programmed light shows onto passersby at night.
The juxtaposition of the lobby with its silver, luminescent materials to the auditorium’s warmer colors adds to the intimacy of the auditorium, which has been reduced in width by 30 feet and has 16 new boxes facing the stage. Seating was reduced as a result of the adjustments, and yet, planners say that all sightlines have been improved for the 2,900 seats. Major backstage additions include a scenery handling area equal in size to the stage, a 100-foot fly loft (for lifting set pieces out of view during productions), a 24-foot trap door in the stage floor and a rigging system that can lift and move 2,000 pounds anywhere on the stage.
The additions should render Seattle Opera’s technical ability as noteworthy as the company’s demanding repetoire. The company is known for its performances of Wagner’s daunting four-opera production “The Ring,” which is performed over the course of a week. The inaugural production of “Parsifal,” marks the company’s achievement of performing all 10 of Wagner’s major operas and was choosen to take advantage of the new technology.
The new house opened during the celebration of General Director Speight Jenkins’s 20th anniversary at Seattle Opera. The renovation was completed despite the city’s budgetary problems, but planners are certain the community will appreciate the new performance space. The new hall can house more than one event at a time and includes a cafe, lobby space that can be rented for events, two reception rooms and a lecture hall. So far, Seattle Opera representatives say they have received standing ovations for both the performance and the venue.