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Video Report: Shooting Stars at the Winspear

by Jerome Weeks 9 Oct 2009 6:55 AM

The Winspear’s chandelier may look like a slow-motion meteor shower, but it’s also a feat of engineering and computerized rigging – and unlike any other chandelier in the world.


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Next week, of course, is the long-awaited gala opening of the Winspear Opera House. If you go, you can mingle on the grand staircase, check out the opera curtain painted by the Argentinian Guillermo Kuitca. You’ll find your seat, and just as the performance is about to begin — after the red glass, the solar canopy, the park outside, the gleaming new architecture, after all the talk of what this must mean for Dallas — the Winspear will show you One. Last. Marvel.

The lights will dim.

That’s it. That’s the marvel. The lights dim.

[background sounds of work going on in the performance hall]

Naturally, if that were all, there wouldn’t be so many people in the Winspear right now with their heads craned back, peering up at the opera house chandelier. These are employees of Linbeck Construction and JR Clancy, a firm that specializes in high-tech stage rigging. And they’re all trying to get the lights to do what they’re supposed to do.

Which is basically just go up and down. But to do it like no other chandelier.

A construction worker bellowed a warning inside the echo-y, incomplete Winspear Opera House. They’re about to see how the new chandelier works: “Once again, everybody! Chandelier test! Going dark!

The Winspear chandelier is made of 318 acrylic rods suspended from long, individual cables. Each acrylic rod is between six and eight feet long with an LED or light-emitting diode on the top. This causes the entire acrylic rod to glow like a light saber. All of these glowing light sabers form a huge cloud-cluster hanging in the auditorium. It’s 50 feet tall and tapers down to just 25 feet above the stage.

What the Winspear’s chandelier looks like are the falling sparks from a skyrocket that have stopped just short of hitting the ground. In fact, if you’re seated in orchestra row H, seat 13, you’re the target. Look straight up, and that mass of golden light will seem as though it’s coming down on your head.

The way the chandelier’s design suggests shooting stars is hardly accidental. Jeff Innmon, project manager for the Winspear, explained how it evolved.

“It began from a book of constellation patterns,” he said, “that the architects liked [Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey] and when they conceived the domed ceiling, they wanted to do an artistic painting of a constellation pattern and use pinpoint fiber optics to create a starlight pattern. Through conversations with lighting designer Claude Engle, they debated anywhere from 250 to 500 strands. So we went through a series of mock-ups using ropes at Clancy’s shop and used that to develop the density and layout.”

Eventually, it was decided to ditch the fiber optics in favor of the LEDs. And don’t go looking for your horoscope sign outlined somewhere in the lights. There’s no longer a specific constellation, either. Instead, the lighting pattern was derived from photos of stars – taken by the Hubble Telescope.

There is, of course, a tradition in opera houses of spectacular chandeliers. Here are the ones in the Paris Opera. And one from the Vienna Staatsoper. One from Teatro Del’ Opera in Rome. The Kennedy Center. The one at Lincoln Center. And now for something German: the Bavarian State Opera’s in Munich.

Some of those chandeliers even get hauled up out of the way before the show starts. That’s what The Phantom of the Opera was all about: Chandelier goes up, chandelier goes down.

But that’s usually only one chandelier in the auditorium, which means one, maybe two hoists. For the Winspear chandelier to move, it needs 44 – 44 automated, computer-controlled hoists. Think of it as 44 separate chandeliers, all coordinated to move together. Each hoist controls seven or eight cables, requiring an array of incredibly complex rigging — which explains why JR Clancy was here. The Winspear’s chandelier was actually more of a rigging problem then a lighting one, said Innmon.

It’s not until you’re upstairs on the the lighting grid that you fully appreciate what’s involved. It’s in what might roughly be called the Winspear’s attic, directly beneath the metal and concrete roof: a catwalk suspended a few feet over the plaster ceiling. It’s as dusty and eerie as all that might sound.

Robert Degenkolb is project manager for JR Clancy. He’s in charge of installing the chandelier.

One of the 44 computerized winches above the ceiling in the Winspear Opera House that make the chandelier’s 318 acrylic rods move up and down.

“It kinda looks like a forest of steel,” he said. “If you look all the way across, it’s almost impossible to see what’s on the other side of us.”

That’s because each of the chandelier’s light sabers is sheathed in its own tube in the ceiling. That means – in addition to the jungle of cables and beams and conduits already up here — there are 318 steel pipes, like tree trunks 20 feet tall. On top of them rests a grate which is criss-crossed by a huge bird’s nest, a tangle of moving pulleys and cables and hoists. The construction workers here crouched and crawled to get across. The cables filled the air so much it was like some bizarre obstacle course on a reality game show. Stand up and you’ll get garroted.

When the hoists all kicked in, the whirring was loud enough it’s a surprise it can’t be heard by the audience. If you come early enough before a performance, you can see the chandlier descend. But just before each performance at the Winspear, all the lights in the auditorium will start to dim, and the entire chandelier, all 318 acrylic rods, will float up and retract into the ceiling, causing the lights to dim even more. As they do, the chandelier will subtly change colors. Once the rods are completely retracted, the audience — peering up — will now see just their tips, still visible, still illuminated.

They’ll look like a scattering of stars in the night sky.

And — they will twinkle.

  • poppy

    The video link appears to be broken.

    • Nope, I just ran the video, and it’s fine. Our server, on the other hand, seems to be incredibly slow this morning, so your computer may have simply gotten impatient waiting for the video to start. Understandable. But give it another shot. It’s worth the wait.

  • Great report Jerome!

  • I also heard the report this morning, it was thrilling to listen to. So glad to experience this historic arts event through Art&Seek!

  • Rick

    Attended a great pre-opening “Spotlight” concert at the Winspear last weekend, and while I liked the looks of the somewhat spare hall, I couldn’t help but be disappointed and surprised by what looked to be a totally naked, unadorned ceiling. Was so pleased to hear this report on NPR. That chandelier will provide the much-needed decorative focal point for the Hall.

  • Jeannie

    Wow! That is fantastic. Makes me want to drive there to see it.
    Great job, son. Mom

  • A.G.

    Great story….can’t wait to get a peek at the curtain everyone’s hinting about as well!!

  • nmlhats

    I just listened to this story for the third time and I still love it. I had to put a link on FB.

    Tonight I will get to see it in person–but I enjoyed imagining it so much that I am almost afraid it won’t live up to Jerome’s vivid description!

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  • Tara

    I think this is amazing! For a techie like me, it’s absolutely fascinating. My husband doesn’t quite see the same level of awesomeness as I do…but I suppose that’s why he’s a statistician and I’m a theatre technician. 🙂

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