The Curtain Rises On The Winspear Opera House And Wyly Theatre
For Richard Pilbrow, founder of Theatre Projects, this project represents the culmination of 25 years of work, as the first report for the performing arts center was written back in 1984. “This is a very important project for the firm,” confirms Benton Delinger, director at Theatre Projects and project manager for the Wyly. “It represents the breadth and depth of our knowledge on one site, with the successful combination of different architectural attitudes, each tailored for a specific client.” Thanks to the special attention given to their needs, the resident clients—Dallas Opera at the Winspear and Dallas Theatre Center (DTC) at the Wyly—have remarkable new homes where form follows function in interesting ways, from a contemporary opera house with a classical interior to a radically modern, flexible theatre.
Winspear Opera House
Home of the Dallas Opera, the Winspear was designed primarily as a 21st-century opera house in terms of technology and machinery, while respecting a classical horseshoe-shaped seating configuration. “Yes, it is an opera house, first and foremost,” says Jules Lauve, associate at Theatre Projects and project manager for the Winspear. “But it was also built to accommodate Broadway tours and ballet.”
The modern exterior features red glass panels protected by a solar canopy that provides shade. To fine-tune the design process for the audience chamber, Theatre Projects took the client on a tour of leading European opera houses, with the Staatsoper in Munich eventually setting the tone for the shape of the Winspear’s Margaret McDermott Performance Hall. “The interior is dark yet celebratory,” says Lauve. The walls and ceiling in the audience chamber are a deep royal purple-brown. The balcony fronts are 22-karat white gold-leaf, and the ceiling features a dome encircled by two concentric rings of plaster. The seating is divided into orchestra and parterre level, boxes, mezzanine, dress circle, and grand tier, and capacity changes with the size of the orchestra pit. In standard opera configuration, it seats 2,200 with a surprisingly intimate relationship from the stage to the audience.
Theatre Projects worked with acoustician Bob Essert of Sound Space Design of London to assure the resonance in the hall. “One of the major concerns was the balance of the orchestra and the volume of the singers,” says Lauve. While there is no reinforcement used for the operas, an audio system is in the room. “The PA system is built into the acoustically transparent walls and not visible during an opera.” This system includes Renkus-Heinz Iconyx loudspeakers provided by Clair Brothers Audio Systems.
The acoustics are helped by the height of the auditorium, as well as its numerous reflective surfaces, including a hardwood walnut floor and the rippled, gold-leaf balcony fronts. In addition, acoustic reflectors over the stage send the sound into the audience chamber. Open just a few months, the Winspear has won kudos for its acoustics, already tweaked to meet the opera company’s needs: “You could hear from the quality of the low E natural, the double bass, when Otello comes in, that pianissimo rings right all the way through,” maestro Graeme Jenkins noted after the opening night performance of Verdi’s Otello. “The gift we’ve been given is extraordinary.”
JR Clancy provided and installed rigging equipment in the Winspear, specified by Theatre Projects and including 85 JR Clancy 2,000lb counterweight line set systems with 86' of batten travel and an integrated counterweight assist automated house curtain system for raising and lowering the custom I. Weiss house curtain at up to 360fpm.
JR Clancy also provided a standalone custom-automated 50'-wide steel-frame fire curtain, 18 of their 600lb/400fpm-capacity spot line point hoists, three 2,500lb-capacity drum hoists for raising and lowering the line array clusters, and three 1,000lb-capacity drum hoists and linear actuators for opening and closing pairs of steel-frame speaker cluster “bomb bay doors.” Six modified JR Clancy PowerLift Systems raise and lower the custom-fabric variable-acoustic curtains, provided by Stage Decoration & Supplies, while 14 custom-radius Triple-E Chain Track systems open and close the acoustic curtains. H&H Specialties provided additional draperies.
The machinery package also comprises six side- and rear-stage CM LodeRail Gantry Crane systems with 20 CM Lodestar dual brake chain motors, as well as one 34-way PIP34 and two 16-way PIP16 Skjonberg Chain Motor Controllers with handheld touchscreen displays. “This is an interesting design by Theatre Projects,” says Clancy’s project manager Robert Degenkolb, who notes that you can successfully “grow” the Nutcracker Christmas tree, for example, via 18 custom-designed hoist points that hold up to 600lbs each and run at 400fpm. “There is also a series of tracks and rolling bridges that can be moved upstage to downstage or stage-right to stage-left, or dropped off the bridges and moved manually around the grid, even though they weigh 500 to 600lbs each.” SECOA provided the under-stage machinery, including two orchestra pit lifts and a lift for the sound lift position, employing Serapid lift mechanisms.
The performance lighting is straightforward. “The real beauty of the system is that, with hundreds of cable passes and over a dozen company switches, the infrastructure supports not only today’s technology, but tomorrow’s as well,” says Lauve. “One of the least glamorous, but most important, functional features is the ease with which operas, ballets, and touring shows can load-in, setup, operate in repertory, and load-out. In the past, at Music Hall [in Fair Park], the Dallas Opera needed to marry arbors with battens a foot or so apart, so they could completely load the lower batten with electrics and use the upper batten for cable management. The ladder battens in the Winspear eliminate the need to marry arbors or take system pipes out of commission just for cable management.”
Lauve adds that shows that have toured to the Winspear since opening have reported record-breaking load-in and load-out times, due to the easy access from trucks to the scene dock and the rear and main stages. In addition, the rear and side stages, each about the size of the main stage, are equipped with a chain hoist gantry system roughly 30' above the deck. “Not only does this allow carpenters and riggers to build the tall scenery offstage while electrics are onstage—multi-discipline access not possible at the old Music Hall—but the opera company, for the first time ever, can perform in repertory,” Lauve notes, adding that guests can now see more than one opera in a weekend. “This multi-opera viewing opportunity ripples through the box office to downtown hotels, local restaurants, everyone,” he adds.
An LED Chandelier
One of the most discussed elements in the Winspear auditorium is the central chandelier, custom-designed for the hall by the architects in consultation with architectural lighting designer Claude Engle and lighting consultant Mike Wood of Mike Wood Consulting. Based on images of stars, the chandelier twinkles via 318 acrylic rods, each capped with bright LEDs, illuminating the rods, which have been described as light sabers.
“The chandelier was a custom-build from the ground up,” says Degenkolb, as JR Clancy did the complicated, custom rigging involved, starting with mock-ups in their shop. “Each rod is like an individual fixture with RGBW LEDs,” he adds. “The rods raise and lower independently on lifting cables. Each illuminator weighs five pounds, and the movement is preprogrammed with preset recall.”
A total of 44 hoists are used to raise and lower the 318 rods, each hoist controlling seven or eight cables. Above the ceiling, each rod has its own 20'-tall metal sheath. At curtain time, the entire chandelier retracts into the ceiling.
The Wyly Theatre
Talk about modern: The heart of the Wyly Theatre is the 575-seat, glass-walled Potter Rose Performance Hall, the new home for the DTC. This multiform courtyard theatre offers multiple configurations including proscenium, thrust, flat floor, and traverse, while the interior balcony structure and the main seating can be removed to create an entirely open space. The structure is boldly designed, with 75,000sq-ft. of performance and support spaces in a stacked, vertical array on a dozen levels. The main performance space is a 100' square by 30' high.
“The Wyly is a true theatre machine designed in the original spirit of the Dallas Theatre Center,” says Delinger. “They are a company that likes to do things differently and quickly, yet affordably. This theatre can be transformed from flat floor to trust or end-stage in just eight hours. The architects envisioned a glass box that could be a vessel for anything, with the ability to transform.” And transform it does, as everything—from seating towers to the proscenium—flies out, allowing the configuration to be changed daily, if so desired, as part of the venue’s “disappearing act.” A “crash wall” can be flown in as a back wall to protect the glass wall of the theatre and create a crossover space behind.
The green seats were custom-designed by Studio Arne Quinze and manufactured by Moroso in Italy. “They are highly designed loose chairs that act like fixed seats,” adds Delinger, pointing out a maximum of 36" of legroom between the rows. Some of the seats fly out, while others are stored on carts and seat wagons when not in use.
Overhead is a series of catwalks that are part of the structural steel, creating a waffle-like grid, and acoustically calibrated to support the spoken voice. “The reflectors create a ceiling over the stage so the sound doesn’t get stuck high in the room,” says Delinger. Lighting positions are on the catwalks as well as on the seating towers, which have light rails around them, plus lighting ladders backstage for use when the venue is in end-stage position and the proscenium flies in, although this is turning out to be the least popular configuration to date. Acoustics were the purview of Dorsser Blesgraaf (Netherlands).
Backstage At The Wyly
Theatre Projects worked closely with REX/OMA to make sure the performance and support spaces fit into the bold vertical design scheme while ensuring their arrangement would support the functional demands of the resident DTC. “Our client was the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, now AT&T, with the DTC in a tenant status,” explains Michael Nishball, director at Theatre Projects. “The real question was what DCPAF and their Wyly board members on the construction committee expected for flexibility. The idea of a complete flat floor configuration was discussed, and it was immediately embraced for the great rental potential it offered the space, but safety and operational costs were high on the list of questions I had to address. Not that end-stage, arena, thrust, or open forms for DTC were secondary; it was all considered as a complete concept for performances and non-performance events.”
A sophisticated series of stage lifts includes a Serapid lift for the orchestra pit, which lowers to the seat wagon storage level. Six 9'x9' squares—each made up of three 3'x9' platforms—can spin 90° and be re-raked according to the desired sightlines. In addition, three rows of NIVOflex air-assisted stage platforms were provided by Steeldeck to add additional height variations.
“As SECOA was the Wyly’s primary theatre equipment contractor, the complex Serapid under-stage machinery they provided was integral to the installation,” notes Nishball. “The under-stage equipment was competitively bid with no bias to any particular motive system. We were careful to accommodate several different motive systems in the interface with the building during design. Obviously, due to the stacked concept of the Wyly, we required a motive system without caissons or boreholes. Serapid and their controls partners, Stage Technologies Las Vegas, delivered nicely on this complex system of 24 axes of movement. I don’t think there is another project that has so much lift equipment in a 42'x27' area.”
The complete seating towers and stairs move 6' laterally and 28' vertically from arena-like scoreboard hoists fabricated by Vortek, a division of Daktronics. “There is no counterweight, and each tower has two 22mm wire rope-lifting points in a two-part/doubled reeving configuration. The speed is set at 1.5' per minute. The lateral movement is achieved with Serapid rigid chain coupled to the hoists on a rolling frame in the level four machine rooms. Tapered steel pins and registration sockets in the floor are used for two stage configurations as thrust or end-stage,” Nishball says.
“The stage tower is mostly glass walls below 30', and the 15,000lb proscenium wall was to fly out. We could not accommodate any of the wall-mounted services, like a convenience outlet or wall switch you would find in abundance on a typical stage house, let alone a counterweight rigging system,” Nishball says. “Committing to a complete power-flying system with the speed, capacity, and quality was a significant concern for me. This complete Vortek rigging system—44 63' 1.5" schedule 40 black pipe with Vortex Pro Series Hoists with a 1,200lb capacity and a Vortek Automation Center—is possibly the largest installation for a regional theatre company, and the artistic demands on the system had to be met. As the DTC and AT&T staff members use the system daily, the mechanical and control systems continue to respond well.”
Is the Wyly perhaps as state-of-the-art as one can get? “Certainly, it was a completely unique solution to the flexible performance space. If completely flying out two side seating balcony structures at 60,000lbs each, the complete rear balcony structure, two stair towers at 119,000lbs, and the complete 70'-wide proscenium to achieve an open room with glass on three sides is state-of-the-art, then yes,” replies Nishball. “Maybe not ‘state-of-the-art’ but just ‘original,’ like art can be.”
“Both venues represent our approach and attitude to theatre design,” affirms Pilbrow, who has had the pleasure of seeing this project through from start to finish over the past 25 years. “Both share the qualities we’ve always pursued—a world-class opera house that can stand alongside the best opera houses of the world and a modern, flexible theatre based on the courtyard theatre of Shakespeare’s time. It was stimulating and exciting to work with these famous architects and a great match between their skills and what we do. The whole thing was an exercise in great teamwork.”
The AT&T Performing Arts Center continues Dallas’ cultural heritage and adds to its distinctive arts district that includes the Meyerson Symphony Center—an I.M. Pei/Russell Johnson collaboration—which opened in 1989, just a few years after planning began for the Winspear and the Wyly. “The new buildings embrace the same classical principles as the Meyerson—visual, emotional, and acoustic intimacy,” adds Pilbrow.
For additional images and equipment lists, check out the March issue of Live Design in print.