After 57 years, the Dallas Opera finally has a home it deserves
Jonathan Pell still recalls the first time he saw a production by the Dallas Opera. It 1973 — was long before he even lived in Texas; he was merely a visitor, but was totally rapt by the performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. So entranced, in fact, by the singing, the music, the spectacle, that he didn’t really notice that the hall wasn’t the best venue for listening to opera.
"I guess I was so dazzled that I didn’t realize how much I was missing," he says now.
Flash forward 36 years. Pell, now the artistic director of the Dallas Opera, is all-too aware of the limitations of the Fair Park Music Hall. As home to the Dallas Opera throughout its history, it has seen the likes of Maria Callas, the American stage debuts of Joan Sutherland and Placido Domingo and more acclaimed productions than you can shake a fist at.
But it’s also a notorious acoustical nightmare. And its stage, interrupted by huge load-bearing columns, is just more than 30 feet deep — "a postage stamp," in Pell’s view.
So the opening of the Winspear Opera House is akin to lifting a veil.
"It’s as if you have been listening with cotton stuck in your ears all this time," Pell enthuses. "You get a broader spectrum of the music."
Think of analog broadcast TV. Now think of digital high-def. It’s that kind of difference.
The road was a long one. Pell remembers hearing, soon after he moved to Dallas, how an opera house was the "next major civic arts project" following construction of the Meyerson Symphony Center. Actually, it was — he just didn’t anticipate it would take 20 years to realize.
"It has been a dream of mine for many years to have a purpose-driven hall [for the Dallas Opera], Pell says. Now that he has one, he can hardly contain himself.
Well, almost. Less than a week before the gala opening, the building is still under some massive tweaking; the grounds are torn up; a cherry-picker sits underneath the eye-catching canopy; and the certificate of occupancy has yet to be issued. Fire marshal inspections routinely shut down the light board, and the set for the Dallas Opera’s debut production in the hall, Verdi’s Otello (opening Oct. 23), is still under construction. (The performers are still rehearsing off-site.)
But if the logistics are stressing him out, Pell doesn’t show it. He’s too excited by what the hall represents.
In his career, Pell has become a well-traveled connoisseur not only of opera, but of opera houses, and he insists the Winspear is the finest he has ever encountered. Acoustically, it is a marvel. Halls themselves can be "tuned," and Pell says just listening from the grand tier (the highest balcony) is an "overwhelming experience."
"[Music director] Graeme [Jenkins] was having a conversation with a musician in the pit and I called to him, ‘Graeme, I can hear every word," Pell says. "They call acoustics a science, but I think it’s more of an art with a touch of voodoo."
Things which may appear decorative, such as the undulating panels that dot the balconies, are actually designed to direct the sound throughout the auditorium. The hall’s mahogany flooring has no carpeting to impede the sound, and the fabric on the chairs does not absorb sound, either. Plus the horseshoe design — accommodating 2,200 to 2,300 seats, depending on the production, about a third less than the Music Hall — creates an impressive sense of intimacy, even from the back wall of the grand tier (which is as close to the stage as the first row of the balcony at Fair Park).
"There was no opportunity for subtlety; now there is," he says.
Not only is the stage here larger, its backstage is massive — enough to hold two full shows, permitting the Dallas Opera to do something it never could before: Mount operas in repertory.
"We didn’t want to do it for the first production, but that will change next year," Pell says. He anticipates people will come from out of town for a weekend and see two shows, which they couldn’t before.
The opera house has also invigorated the Dallas Opera creatively. They have commissioned gay composer Jake Heggie to create a world premiere opera of Moby Dick — only the third world premiere in the company’s history — which debuts next spring. Pell recently attended a read-through and was floored by it.
But right now, his mind is on other things. It’s taken a lot of work, but now it’s time to have fun, sit back and listen. He’s got a real opera house now. It’s enough to make a man break out into song … or even an aria.
This article appeared in Applause, The Dallas Voice Visual & Performing Arts Guide 2009 print edition October 9, 2009.