Tuesday, November 03, 2009


All about design

I've been gathering photo material on some recent design that's related to theater, and certainly very theatrical.

The new Winspear Opera house recently opened in Dallas; it has gotten very good reviews for its acoustics and seems to be loved by the city for its architectural design.

In this economic crisis, with arts organizations going under and many projects on hold, it's refreshing to see a new theater opening. Of course,
thanks to a major philanthropic gift by Margot and Bill Winspear, the funding was in place before the crash, bank failures, housing slide, bailouts and the rest of the disaster--but psychologically, it feels good to see this kind of project come to fruition now. Sadly Bill Winspear died during the construction and never lived to see the result of his generosity.

Chief Architect Spencer de Gray of Foster & Partners covered the plaza in front of the glass-walled grand lobby with a louvered canopy that shades the interior from the burning Texas sun, and also allows the exterior space to be used for various public activities whether generated by the theater or not.

I was a little concerned when I first saw the architectural rendering of the auditorium. It bears a a striking--and worrisome--resemblance to the New York State Theater in New York's Lincoln Center, a theater notorious for its bad acoustics and poor backstage spaces. But when the Winspear opened, its sound was praised and comment was made that the acoustic favored voices coming from the stage slightly over the orchestra. The exact opposite was true in New York, where the State Theater has just been torn apart inside with the hope of finally correcting its acoustic problems (I'll find out if they succeeded this weekend when I attend the first two productions of the New York City Opera's new season).

The front curtain was designed by artist Guillermo Kuitca who's been working in patterns created out of fragmenting and restructuring theater seating plans. The design on the Winspear's new curtain is an abstract of its own seating plan.

An apparently very good but not incandescent performance of Verdi's Otello (from Shakespeare's play--there's no th sound in Italian) opened the new theater and allowed the building itself to be the star of the occasion.


Those who've been reading me for a while know I like to revisit the work of fashion, and sometimes interior designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana occasionally to see what they're up to. Their work, especially their advertising, is controversial and sometimes well over the top. They're Italian!

Italians for centuries--for millenia--have known how to use the arts and spectacle in particular to make their major social, religious and political statements. Given the scale of the arts in Italy, culminating in Italian opera that is a synthesis of all the visual and performing arts, matters of taste play a secondary role, or may even be irrelevant, in the face of the size and passion of the gesture. I'm Italian, by the way. Well, Italian on my father's side, English on my mother's side. It is an odd mix and I wonder sometimes if I'm reserved and polite about my passions or passionate about my manners and reserve. In actual fact, I'm pretty sure the ratio is at least 2/3 Italian and 1/3 English in my personality.

Anyway, the other day I discovered in my studio some pages from an issue of Vogue dating to about a year ago that I feared I had lost. They contained an article not on Dolce & Gabbana fashion but their lifestyle (long partners in business and private life, they have split romantically but still share a great deal of their daily lives). Vogue focused on their palatial home on the island of Portofino. I had wanted to show the photos before but couldn't locate the pages and internet pictures that did exist were of very poor fidelity to the impact of the spaces. The Vogue pages appear below after some of their recent advertising spreads, a couple of which were met with serious protest:

Combining the imagery of the Crucifixion, the lethal injection couches of modern prison execution, and some serious homoeroticism.

The ads above and, especially, below were both criticised as suggesting that rape is fashionable and aceptable. I'm not certain I think the scenario of either picture is to be interpreted only in terms of hostility and non-consensual sex. D&G ads frequently play with viewer perception and invite a number of interpretations, eroticism of one sort or another being the one constant. Domination and voyeurism can definitely be seen, but the final "meaning" of these images seems to me to be in the eye of the beholder.

The most spectacular room in the Portofino mansion is a guest room where everything is plated in gold. D&G's interiors are fully theatrical in scale and they'd work splendidly on stage (click the following three pictures to enlarge for detail).
Filtered through gold wire mesh curtains, the effect of natural light is significant enough here, but lighting this with theater lighting instruments would be an incredibly plum assignment.

The caption reads: "Dolce and Gabbana's visual education was honed watching episodes of the disco era's kitch, opulent soap operas Dallas, Dynasty, and their favorite, Falcon Crest." Of course.

The opposite wall of the golden guest room.

This little area with its oversized pattern reminds me strongly of a 1968 English movie starring Shirley MacLaine, Richard Attenborough, Barry Humphries (on his way to becoming Dame Edna Everage), Patricia Routledge, and John Cleese (not a bad cast). The movie's art directior exploited to the max the liberated, uninhibited scale of design typical of London in the late 60s and early 70s.

I really love these guys.

My acoustics professor in school was Bob Newman, the acoustic consultant on the NY State Theater. One of his frequent sayings was that the laws of acoustics work for Phillip Johnson too! Johnson was the Architect of the theater and wouldn't take Bob's advice, with the results that the hall had lousy acoustics.
Hugh, there's also the issue that George Balanchine, sainted head of the New York City Ballet at that time, didn't want to hear the clack of toe shoes on the stage during the music and decreed that sound from the stage shouldn't pass into the audience. The ballet was, from the beginning, planned to be the dominant tenant. See where this is going?

The decision to house the City Opera in the State Theater didn't come until well after the design and construction phases were over. Johnson may have taken Bob Newman's advice, at least on how to contain stage noise to the stage itself. The first sign that there was big trouble for non-dance events came in June of 1964--two months after the theater opened--when Peter Brook's seminal production of King Lear played there--and three generations of superbly voice trained English actors were virtually inaudible. Disdaining amplification, the company slowed down their delivery of the lines to punch out consonants and inflexions more clearly. The performance lasted four hours BUT remained massively powerful and influential.
Critical comment on the theater's acoustics was negative.

The Broadway musical revivals that played there for the first two years were already being amplified elsewhere so they had no objections, and dance went on happily clack-free. It was when City Opera joined the mix in September of 1966 that the problem was first seen to be potentially very serious because opera is staunchly ampliphobic (I know, but I just couldn't resist) and was going to be as much of a tenant as the ballet.

Thius weekend I'll be hearing a very big contemporary score (Hugo Weisgall's ESTHER and a smaller, traditional one (Mozart's Don Giovanni) and should get a pretty good idea of how the new acoustic works--or doesn't.
That would be The Bliss Of Mrs. Blossom, & you Will, are the only person I know who would reference that film.

I thought that the NY Stae Theatre was being/was re-done.
Stephen, It is indeed The Bliss of Mrs. B, which I saw in England, probably London, in 1970 and loved. Having had it recalled to mind, I checked for it on Netflix to find they don't offer it. I did find a used copy through Amazon.com which is on its way to me even as we speak (type).

The NY State Theater has been renovated as some great cost to enlarge the orchestra pit, remove lots of superfluous upholstery, remove the continental seating in the orchestra and replace all the chairs with less plush upholstery in a standard configuration with two aisles, restructure the ends of the balconies and, most importantly, the proscenium arch. All this and more besides will be tested tonight at a gala fund-raising concert. I'll hear the first two staged opera performances of the season this weekend--a big, very contemporary opera by the late Hugo Weisgall and Mozart's Don Giovanni with a much lighter ensemble in the pit, both of which should test the hall very revealingly.

It is now the David Koch Theater after the big donor, a right wing Republican who nevertheless is involved with the arts and lots and lots of the gay men and lesbians who go along with them.
such ads!
But they generate 'talk' which I suppose is the point of advertising, no?
Which is the point of advertising, yes--with the frequent tag line that no publicity is bad publicity even if (and in some cases, especially if) it creates cntroversy.
D&G has always been able to stir up controversy with their ads. Sometimes I think their political/social commentary is lost on the masses, (not that the masses can afford their products)though I don't think that's D&G market anyhow. I'm sure the sensuality and sexuality are not lost on anyone.
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you know, will, i've revisited this post several times before making this comment.

i've also done some research, looked at plans and pictures from multiple angles, admired many of its details, appreciated the thought and expertise that went into its design--but, regardless of all that shit, i still can't escape my initial impression that all the winspear opera house is lacking is a big ol' "exxon" sign to complete its impersonation as the world's biggest gas station.
mkf: well that would be totally appropriate for Texas, no?

And maybe in 25 years when all the stage equipment is obsolete and it needs a make-over that costs twice as much as the original construction , some some oil company will put up the money and it will become the Chevron Oil Opera House (oil change, lube and gas before final curtain. Tune-up, brakes, tire rotation and detailing during Wagner performances).
I'll bet that theater is unbelievable in person, let alone the performances that will come from that stage. Wow....and as for D&G....they're a guilty pleasure of mine. I hate their politics...but design aesthetic is wonderfully and unapologetically gay. Thank you for sharing those!
Completely off topic, but have you ever met Mary Oliver?
for a yankee, you know texas pretty well ;)
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