Seattle Opera at the Center Is the New Crown Jewel of Seattle Center

It's a civic center, cultural resource and treasure chest, all in one
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  • Seattle Opera's new Civic Center in Seattle Center

It could be a jewelry box, or perhaps a treasure chest. At street level are all-glass walls; above, small panels of scrim—arranged as if fragments of a larger scrim had been broken up and scattered by the wind—can be lit up to glow and sparkle and programmed for variable lighting effects. This is the attention-getting facade of Seattle Opera’s new Seattle Opera at the Center, at Fourth Avenue and Mercer Street in the Seattle Center’s northeast corner. The $60 million structure, designed by architecture firm NBBJ, is built to provide the company’s staffers and visiting artists an upgrade over the drab John Street offices and rehearsal spaces (once a carpet factory) in South Lake Union that Seattle Opera had been making do with for years. The public was also kept very much in mind, and the Center’s crystalline glamour as seen from the street was clearly devised to entice opera mavens and newbies alike to explore what’s inside.

You’ll get a chance to do just that this Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Center’s open house, free to the public. Start with the outside: The huge Fourth Avenue windows look into the spacious beehive that is the wig and costume shop, with the staff already at work on the dozens of costumes needed for Verdi’s Il trovatore, running January 12–26. Next to it, in the ground floor corner, is the new 318-capacity performance space, Tagney Jones Hall: a perfectly simple, marvelously airy box-within-a-box with tiers of chocolate-colored wood for seating. There will be performances (including a working rehearsal of Il trovatore and a Verdi sing-a-long) there during the open house, at 2, 3 and 4 p.m., so check out the acoustics. The glass walls can be left open, covered with gauzy white curtains, or blacked out totally for theatrical performances.

The Center’s rehearsal spaces, too, can be used for chamber-opera performances, an informal (even hip) alternative to full-dress mainstage productions that will greatly enlarge the company’s capacity for contemporary works and experimental stagings (which the opera has been staging at venues across the city such as Washington Hall). West Hall is the same size as the McCaw Hall stage, so performers can work in a space as similar as possible to a production’s actual set, and Speight Jenkins Hall is equipped with a dance floor and theatrical lighting, again to approximate McCaw performance conditions. This area directly abuts McCaw Hall’s backstage, with the two connected by a 40-foot-high door and serviced by parallel loading docks. 

In one stairwell hangs a vast green tapestry—part of the handmade stage curtain Seattle Opera used for its popular production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the fondly remembered “green Ring” that premiered in 2005. On Monday’s press tour, some areas were still unoccupied: The library and archives await its 12,000 volumes, the coaching studios’ pianos sat silent and the administrative staff is packing Friday to colonize its third-floor offices (more glass walls here overlook the trees on Fourth Avenue; in summer, when they’re in leaf, these offices will feel like a forest treehouse). Practically everything on the Center’s south side—for example, the employee lunchroom/lounges—has a view of the Space Needle. Equally functional, comfortable, and beautiful, the new Center will undoubtedly put a spring in the step of Seattle Opera’s staff and fan base alike, and its new visibility should attract a new wave of curious operagoers.

Grand opening 12/5. 2–5 p.m. Free. Seattle Opera at the Center, Seattle Center, 363 Mercer St.; 206.389.7676; seattleopera.org

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