Friday, May 7, 2010

No Phantom At This Opera

Show and Tell

For a city as big, diverse, and powerful as it is, Dallas has never been able to shake its deep-rooted inferiority complex.

Even as more and more people and companies moved here during its heyday of the 80’s and 90’s, Big D always seemed to be denying its own identity, vainly striving instead for New York’s, LA’s, or even Fort Worth’s.

Now that the population of Dallas has crested, and city leaders have to work harder than ever to keep and attract employers, has it become too late for Dallas to figure out what it wants to be? Has it missed its opportunity to cast its signature characteristics into an iconic standard by which the world can recognize it?

After all, Fort Worth has the well-honed “cowtown” image. Chicago is big buildings and big attitudes. Boston and Philadelphia are historic Americana and old, old money. Dallas is… um… a dead president and a football team that now plays in another county?

Part of Dallas’ problem involves the fact that compared to “coastal” cities - particularly New York, the envy of Dallas - it’s relatively easy to make and keep money in Big D. One doesn’t need the brains of an Ivy Leaguer or the cunning of a Wall Street titan to be important here. You'd think cheap wealth would help Dallas ingratiate itself with America's A-listers, but somehow, the cities with the hardest shells have remained the most celebrated.

Which is where some big-money Dallas philanthropists come in. "OK, so we can’t top LA, Chicago, and New York in terms of living large, so why not try a counter-offensive and kick our cultural scene up a notch while we’re at it?" A group of them got together and decided to expand the fledgling arts district in a northern corner of downtown Dallas, where the majestic Meyerson Symphony Hall and the dumpy Dallas Museum of Art have been mainstays for two decades.

Now, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, built in part with Ross Perot’s money and named after a close business associate of his, has become one of the world’s best concert halls. Its acoustics defy many more venerable spaces in Manhattan, and its architecture by the celebrated I.M. Pei almost makes the building sing by itself. My only complaint – really! – is that the seating was designed for diminutive Dallas matrons, not people my size. Other than that, every time I visit the Meyerson, I find joy in it.

We’re not even going to discuss the dreary Dallas Museum of Art, down the street from the Meyerson, which has been eclipsed in every way by a recent Arts District addition, the elegant Nasher Scuplture Center.

So, building on the existing cultural venues in this neighborhood – or perhaps, to make up for their shortcomings – Dallas’ new-money arts patrons decided to build an opera hall and a community theater, giving birth to the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House by Sir Norman Foster, and the Wyly Theater (in which I haven’t been).

Long-time classical music patrons, the Winspears donated a whopping $42 million from their steel fortune for the new opera hall. And although my opinions of Dallas society and the new opera hall may not sound flattering, I have to admit that the opera’s old space in the hideous Fair Park Music Hall probably served as great a justification as any for the Winspear family’s generosity in making sure the new hall got built.

Win. Spear. Thrust. Levitate.

Contrasted with the institutional, concrete clunkiness of Fair Park’s Music Hall, the Winspear building represents stunning design. Taken on its own merits, however, the Winspear seems flat and artificial to me. Flat, because a heavy horizontal trellis squats over a vast and curiously-designed courtyard. Artificial, because slick red plastic-looking exterior panels and kitschy silver-painted wood panels inside try too hard to do very little.

Basically, on approach to the Winspear, you behold a tall, red glossy box sliced by a metal trellis of gull-winged sun diffusers sailing over a concrete-and-grass plaza. It appears as though Sir Norman got his design theme for the Winspear from the Doppler radar tower he passed while exiting the south toll plaza at Dallas – Fort Worth International Airport (see photo above-right).

Purportedly created to shield Dallas audiences from the merciless Texas sun, and intended to suggest an invitation for the general public to become opera patrons, it's too high to provide much protection from afternoon and evening rays. It also means that what enclosed, air-conditioned space there is for audience members to wait until the hall opens is relatively contained. Which might be forgivable if the climate-controlled lobby wasn’t itself victimized by forbidding stairways and hardly more charm than some newly-built municipal buildings.

Speaking of public buildings, the needlessly broad wingspan of the Winspear’s ineffective canopy has been shoehorned betwixt the stunning Meyerson and the prison-like black brick Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It’s as if Sir Norman wasn’t given a site plan until after his design went to the contractor. When I was in architecture school, my professors drilled into us the importance of site context when designing in close quarters like a downtown area. If you want to have a trophy piece, like Sir Norman perpetrated on London with his gherkin-shaped Swiss Re Tower, and you’ve got the notoriety to pull it off, then the old adage “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” easily gets ignored. How much more effective might the Winspear’s design have been if it was by itself on an open field somewhere in exurbia?

As it is, the new home of the Dallas Opera beats its old one hands-down; but then, the Music Hall set the bar pretty low to begin with. Aside from championing Sir Norman's penchant for completely snubbing architectural context, opera fans got an adequate building with some odd shortcomings vying for attention from its exceptional neighbor on its west, the Meyerson, while completely overwhelming the begging-to-be-overwhelmed high school to its east.

I can't help but wonder as it ages, how much the building’s exterior whims will speak more to the public’s estimation of opera’s irrelevance than the architecture’s innate longevity?

Listen Here

Inside the actual opera hall, however, we have a markedly different story. Sir Norman and his acousticians banked on a proven shape – the horseshoe – and achieved exquisite audio qualities with their work. You can actually hear the singing change as performers move about the stage – which in our wired and amplified world takes some initial adjustment. Most of us non-opera people are used to a consistent sound, like in the movies, or even a miked play. But the Winspear relies on no microphones, and the acoustics seem perfect. I sat on both the fourth and second levels (there are five), and I didn’t think the sound quality differed at all, so your only sacrifice in the cheap(er) seats will be a distanced view of the stage.

But the aesthetics – again – fail to impress inside the hall. Yes, Sir Norman and his experts have hit a home run with the acoustics, but what’s up with those silver wood carved panels bolted onto the fronts of the balconies? Maybe they enhance the acoustics, since the hall’s sound is so good. But silver paint? Did Sharon Osborne pick that out? In the Meyerson, when the house lights have been dimmed, the concert stage takes center-stage. But in the Winspear, when the house lights have been dimmed, you still have these bulbous silvery ribbons snaking around the audience.

With the hall's lights on, you can’t beat the suspended LED chandelier circling above the main floor for its wow-factor. When fully extended, long glass tubes with LEDs drip from the ceiling in high-tech homage to the elaborate multi-tiered, crystal chandeliers in the world’s most historic opera halls. When retracted into the ceiling, the LEDs twinkle like a starry sky.

Remember my one complaint about the Meyerson next door? The seating? Well, the Winspear’s fixed seating is considerably more ample, both girth-wise and knee-wise. No, I still didn’t have enough leg room in my 4th tier seat, but the high-dollar boxes feature movable cloth armchairs. They proved to be quite comfortable, but they squeaked – which in a hall with such impeccable acoustics as the Winspear, probably won’t be tolerated for long. This is, after all, still its first season, and I’m sure a lengthy punchlist has been drafted for after the season finale.

Added to that punchlist should be the wood laminate flooring in the Winspear’s hall, which while being a nice upgrade from the Meyerson’s painted concrete, has already begun popping up in a couple of places. And those peek-a-boo spaces between the soaring staircases in the lobby deny most women their modesty as they ascend to the nosebleed sections. I made the mistake of looking up to see what all the noise was (people tromping up the uncarpeted stairs make a racket in the high-ceilinged lobby) and you can look right up most women’s skirts through the openings in the stairs between the steps.

The Verdict

But we won’t go back to the unfortunate execution of the spaces outside of the opera hall. If you appreciate good music delivered through flawless sound, then you will have plenty to rave about inside the Winspear’s performance hall. If the silver wood panels look too garish, hopefully someday soon, somebody with taste will strip and stain them an appropriately darker color.

Does the Winspear help achieve its benefactors' goal of establishing a world-class cultural district for Dallas? Ultimately, of course, the quality of the performing arts which take place inside these architectural spaces will determine if the world views Dallas as a legitimate peer alongside the New Yorks, Philadelphias, and Viennas of the cultural world. Credit must be applied to the widely-acclaimed Meyerson and its principle tenant, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which has already put Dallas on many classical music maps, and lends considerable clout to the very idea of a nearby opera hall, no matter what it looks like.

But where the Meyerson's design graciously yet emphatically ennobles the DSO, only the Winspear's acoustics contribute significantly to the credibility of its principle tenant, the Dallas Opera. The rest of the Winspear is like the rest of Dallas - trying too hard to impress.

Of course, Dallas could always run some sound waves through the Winspear's broad metal canopy to put themselves on the opera world's radar...

PS:  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, architect Bing Thom is groveling over the Meyerson with his carbon copy design for Vancouver's Chan Center. 


  1. I don't think you got very close, sir. There is neither plastic nor wood on the exterior of this building, the exterior is clad in red glass sandwich panels that weigh over a thousand pounds apiece and a gargantuan steel grid (Where in the world did you get "kitschy silver-painted wood panels?) that provides shade for both the glass and the surrounding park to create a more comfortable retreat from the Texas sun.

  2. Thank you for writing, "Anonymous."

    I'd like to think that reading the entire post would have clarified what I was talking about. However, I admit that what I initially wrote could have been confusing, so I've re-worded it.

  3. Where ARE you sitting at the Meyerson? There really are some roomy seats there. Granted, they'll cost you some $. But they do exist.

    And if you sit in the choral terrace, the back rows are deeper than the front three rows.

    P.S. The Winspear looks like a throwback to the '80s. Wasn't impressed AT ALL. Therefore, the Meyerson, which STILL looks good over 20 years later, STILL rules. Marble on!


Thank you for your feedback!