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The Winspear's All-Important Sound

by Jerome Weeks 23 Oct 2009 11:54 AM

We’ve heard a lot about the Winspear’s red glass, its solar canopy, its chandelier. But none of that matters quite as much as something that’s really going to get tested tonight — the hall’s acoustics. Bill Zeeble reports on what we might hear at tonight’s opening of the Dallas Opera’s Otello.


KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports on the Winspear Opera House’s acoustics.

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The gala events are over. Tonight the Dallas Opera inaugurates the new Winspear Opera house with its season-opener, Verdi’s Otello. Up to now, nearly all the attention has focused on the shining red glass building downtown. But musicians and fans care most about the sound inside. Will it measure up?

Bill Zeeble: Architect Norman Foster and his team designed the Winspear’s exterior and lobby to invite people in. And while some critics say it works, Foster cannot yet call the opera house a success.

FOSTER:The really important acid test here is going to be the acoustics of this hall.”

[ Verdi music under]

SCOTT CANTRELL: “I think it sounds really great.”

Zeeble: Scott Cantrell is the classical music critic for the Dallas Morning News.

CANTRELL: “Immediately when I went to the 1st rehearsal, I was just bowled over by the sound of the voices – the way they project from the stage and fill the house. The chorus sound was enormous out in the room  and really sets the room ringing. There’s a nice bit of ring to it.

[Music under]

Zeeble: Cantrell says he’s familiar with many of this country’s better known opera houses, from The Metropolitan and City Operas in New York, to halls in San Francisco, Chicago and Houston among others.

CANTRELL: ” It is as good as any of those and better than most.”

Zeeble: There a several reasons. Most surfaces reflect sound, from the hardwood walnut floors and rippled balcony fronts –in white gold leaf – to the suede-fabric seats. That helps those voices ring. Architect partner Spencer de Grey says that’s not all.

DE GREY: “The height is very important to us, the height is all about  the acoustics. And gives us the volume that makes . . . .  when you come this evening or some other time, the richness and clarity to the acoustics.”

Zeeble: De Grey says the multi-level seating and compact horseshoe design puts the most distant seat twice as close to the stage as the farthest seat in  Fair Park’s Music Hall, the old Dallas Opera home.  That adds theatrical intimacy, while bringing the voices closer to the audience. Soprano Alexandra Deshorties, who will sing the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, says she looked for dead spots on stage, to avoid them when singing. She says that’s a routine practice for opera singers. She was pleasantly surprised.

DESHORTIES: “Every spot had a pretty even resonance. So I was looking for it and going, OK, maybe everywhere I step, I’m going to have a really good sound. You can be heard throughout a whole variance of dynamic range on the instrument. Which for me – with my particular instrument — is very interesting. I can go from really loud –  and it doesn’t feel like I’m singing at people. I feel like I’m singing to them and then I can go really soft and force them to kind of  lean a little forward and go, “Oh I have to listen to her.” That’s much more interesting than just having to howl all night to be heard and have to forget about any kind of subtlety.”

Zeeble: The flexible orchestra pit also aids the acoustics. It can be lowered or raised to balance the instruments’ volume with singers on stage. It can expand for more musicians in bigger productions, and shrink for fewer musicians. Dallas Opera’s music director and conductor is Graeme Jenkins.

Night at the Opera 1-08 015JENKINS: “It’s like we’ve been driving along in a really clapped-out Chevrolet and someone just handed the keys of the fastest Ferrari of all time and I’m only beginning to  learn how to corner at 60 miles an hour  using shift gears.”

Zeeble: Jenkins admits it may take some laps around the track to learn this new Ferrari – that is,  a few seasons in the hall –  to take advantage of all its acoustical tricks. Meanwhile, he says he cannot wait until tonight when he gets take the hall, and Verdi, out on the town.