In January this year, extensive remodeling began on Seattle Center's Opera House. Built as a civic auditorium in 1927 and renovated for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, little had been done to it since, and the present work will take until summer 2003.

But once the decision was made to go ahead, one giant question remained: Where would the Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet perform in the interim? They are the Opera House's main tenants and two of Seattle's major cultural organizations; any money spent on an interim facility would have to be taken out of funds earmarked for the Opera House.

No local theatre fit the bill, and the final decision hit upon a most unlikely place — the old ice hockey stadium, Mercer Arena, immediately adjacent to the Opera House. Also built in 1927 and never upgraded, the 8,000-seat space has recently been used only for graduations, small rock shows, and Seattle Center festivals.

Photo: Adam Weintraub

It had the essentials: ceiling clearance of over 35' for standard-size sets and ample room for stage, pit and proscenium arch the same size and shape as those in the Opera House, plus plenty of backstage storage space, dressing rooms, enough bathrooms, and room for 2,900 seats with potentially good sightlines.

The Arena's drawbacks were: no fly space, an HVAC system and wiring from 1927, and a cavernous interior. Proximity to the Opera House caused and will cause some difficulties: Noisy construction had to be avoided during rehearsals lest it disturb performers, and the same will hold true during the Opera House remodel.

Seattle Center operates both the Opera House and Mercer Arena as part of the 74-acre Seattle Center complex of entertainment facilities for the City of Seattle, and has its own stage and sound crew. Its senior project manager Jill Crary, sound crew chief Richard Erwin, stage crew chief Martin Pavloff, Seattle Opera's technical director Robert D. Schaub, and Pacific Northwest Ballet's technical director and resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli undertook a large part of the technical design for the Arena, an unusual arrangement in which the adage didn't hold true that too many cooks spoil the broth.

“Technical theatre people are some of the most practical and creative folk on this planet, and they love problem-solving in the service of someone else's concept,” says Crary, herself a theatre tech person.

The five worked closely together. With Jaffe Holden Acoustics and LMN Architects of Seattle, advised by theatre designers Schuler & Shook, they brain-stormed the project to figure out how it could be done inexpensively, and still be a venue where the Ballet and the Opera could present performances up to their usual standards, drawing their usual patrons.

The Arena's temporary transformation was allotted $6 million, but the original list of essentials priced out at $10 million and had to be wrestled down. “The budget was a challenge,” says Russell Cooper of Jaffe Holden. “We had to keep thinking how we could keep the concept but find a different, cheaper way to do it.”

Schaub and Chiarelli, who had mulled over the situation for several years, eventually found themselves looking at the Arena as moving into a road house, like putting on a formalized road show presentation. “In a job like mine,” says Schaub, “you take the infrastructure for granted. For the Arena, we had to think through every system from scratch, and it was a laborious job.”

Madama Butterfly was the first show in the new space. Photo: ©Gary Smith/Seattle Opera

Construction took four months, from July to November 2001, during which Baugh Construction Company removed old water pipes and an organ loft, built the stage, throat wall, and the ramp for main floor seating, excavated the pit, and installed new HVAC ducts overhead as well as additional steel I-beams.

“Basically,” Crary says, “LMN took the layout of the Opera House and plopped it down in the arena,” keeping height and distance relationships between proscenium, stage, pit, and the front of the main seating the same as in the Opera House. Once Baugh handed the facility over to the technical crews, “we had eight weeks to finish it, until January 2, when the Opera moved in,” says Crary.

The three shops pooled resources to keep expenses down. Trussing, track, rigging, and chain motors came from the Opera shop, dimmer racks and hard legs from the Ballet. Reusable items were walked over from the Opera House between the end of the Ballet's Nutcracker performances December 27 and the deadline January 2, including the stage manager's desk, the lighting board (an ETC Obsession control network, including two full consoles, a remote console, an LD and ALD station, and six ETCNet I nodes), and half the seats.

Seattle Center's crew hung trusses on chain motors from the steel I-beams, three dedicated to scenery and nine to lights. For the lighting, Opera's Schaub and Ballet's Chiarelli piled the requirements of all 18 months' worth of shows on top of each other and planned what they'd need accordingly.

“We tried to develop a repertory light plot,” says Chiarelli, “but because the Ballet and Opera work differently, we decided on a repertory circuit plot, permanently dedicated circuits to these trusses so we could put fixtures wherever we wanted.”

Five new ETC model L86 dimmers supplemented the Ballet's three ancient LMI RD racks, and were connected with four 800A disconnects on a deck over old steeply raked side seats backstage. A big savings was not putting the stage wiring in conduit, using SO cable instead. Purchased new for the project — from Barbizon and PNTA — were 60 ETC Source Four 10° and twelve 5° ellipsoidal spotlights, 24 Strand 8" 2kW fresnels for house lighting, 16 Altman Q-Lites for worklights, and one ETC Sensor 12 × 2.4kW and one 24 × 2.4kW dimmer packs for house lighting control.

Existing equipment that was re-used includes City Theatrical Source Four AutoYokes with DMX iris, a broad fixture package consisting of ETC Source Four, Strand Century, and Altman ellipsoidals and fresnel fixtures, as well as miles of stagepin cable and multicables with break-ins and -outs. Dimming included Seattle Center's six ETC Sensor 96 × 2.4kW rolling racks and two ETC/LMI L86 96 × 2.4kW rolling racks from the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Seattle Center bought a few items that could go on to be used in the remodeled Opera House, like two Yamaha O1V digital mixing consoles along with Yamaha PM1D control surface and the digital engine for the PM1D, five Crown MA3600, four Crown MA 2402, and four MA1202 amplifiers, and six Audio Technica shotgun condenser microphones as well as a central speaker cluster consisting of model CV3218-9-RF-SL three-way speaker system and the model CSP118-RFL subwoofer from JBL on the audio front. On the lighting front, the L86s, and an ETC Sensor dimmer rack for the house lights, but all three shops had plenty of stage fixtures, mostly ETC Source Fours, and the Ballet is sharing with the Opera its ten 20' lighting towers. Sound crew chief Richard Erwin designed the backstage communication system, and his shop built it.

From the acoustical angle, first impressions of the Arena were dreadful. “I thought “No way, they've got to be kidding,'” says Cooper of Jaffe Holden. The ceiling had been covered with acoustical tile to make it less live for rock shows. “It was dead, but once we started poking around and saw what could be put back to the original state, we realized this could be a good environment. It had a beautiful deck ceiling and the shape of the roof was beneficial.”

When the space was cut in half, Jaffe Holden realized it would have similar proportions to the Tanglewood Music Shed (the Boston Symphony's summer home). “We got excited when we realized we could simulate an outdoor Tanglewood indoors.”

The final acoustic design was elegantly simple. Chiarelli came up with the idea of building a 12' × 80' reflector canopy over the pit like a piece of scenery when a structural one proved too expensive. Made in the Ballet shop of slightly curved ¾" plywood on a steel frame, it hangs from chain motors. “It helps the singers get a sense of their voices, provides better sound for the orchestra, and helps direct the sound from stage to auditorium,” says Cooper.

The Opera House's accordion-shaped throat wall was copied but stretched out a little for the Arena and built of two layers of gypsum wallboard each side of 6" steel studs. “The sheetrock has a certain amount of mass to reflect all frequencies of sound, and with the reflector panel it makes a mini-space where the music is created,” says Cooper, “so the singers don't feel they are in a ballfield.”

Almost all the acoustical tile in the roof was removed, some kept in a checkerboard pattern at the sides. Instead, Jaffe Holden decided on two 70' rows of 10'-deep acoustic banners, made of 1"-thick quilted fiberglass, to hang from the auditorium trusses. Final tuning brought reverberation time to 1.6 seconds with some audience present, “really ideal for opera,” says Cooper. Local acoustic company Michael R. Yantis Associates collaborated with Jaffe Holden and consulted with the contractors on the acoustical properties of the HVAC system.

Off-the-shelf DX air-handling units by Trane were installed on the Arena roof, and ductwork in the ceiling shrank in diameter (to save money) as openings in the sides let air out. “Off-the-shelf units are a bit rough by nature, and noise could travel down the ductwork,” says Yantis' Basel Jurdy. Outside the building, Yantis used a duct liner made of coated fiberglass that served the dual purpose of energy insulation and sound reduction. Inside the building duct interiors incorporated sound traps, baffles of different lengths, while vents under seats in the main floor ramp were installed to exhaust the air.

While the sound is cooler than it will be in the remodeled Opera House when it's finished, it is even throughout the space and the HVAC is virtually noiseless. Opera singers will need no amplification here.

In what's now called Mercer Arts Arena, lobbies are cramped, dressing rooms not painted, even diva dressing rooms are austere, but no one is complaining. They all know it's temporary. “We didn't spend a dime we didn't have to,” says Crary. The project came in at under $7 million and it's satisfactory.”