Thanks to the imagination, incentive, and persistence of General Director David Gockley, San Francisco Opera opened its second performance venue in 84 years on Sunday evening. It was back in 1932 that the War Memorial Opera House opened, and today, on Feb. 28, in the Veterans Memorial Building – the Opera House’s twin – the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera’s Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater made its debut.
A modest, but important cousin to the 3,146-seat Opera House, the Atrium has a seating of 299. It is part of the Opera’s new group of facilities on the Veterans Building’s fourth floor (former home of the S.F. Museum of Modern Art) and basement, along with education and rehearsal venues, costume studio, the Opera Archive (responsible for the online history listing), exhibition galleries, and administrative offices.
A Schwabacher Debut Recital provided the program for the Atrium debut, Steven Blier presenting and accompanying his New York Festival of Song’s “Ports of Call,” with three brilliant young artists: soprano Amina Edris, baritone Edward Nelson, and bass-baritone Brad Walker.
The shoebox shape of great old concert halls is difficult to find, and the Atrium’s 30-foot-high ceiling makes it feel like a miniature cathedral. Sound goes up and it has a difficult time finding its way back. SFO Production Director Daniel Knapp says reverb time in the “untreated hall” was 0.8 seconds, but now with the Meyer Sound Constellation® acoustic system, it has been boosted to 1.5 seconds. Quantitative comparisons make that look impressive.
That improvement requires 24 microphones and 76 speakers – all embedded in the walls and ceiling – and the result, to my ears, is a decent sound, much better than the hall’s own dry acoustics, but it’s still electronics, not the laryngeal-human sound we consider “voice.” Knapp emphasizes that Meyer Sound is not amplification or enhancement, but an effective, scientific way of improving acoustics. The fact is that it’s inevitable, given the situation, and – again – it’s done well enough.
Mark Cavagnero was architect for the Atrium, part of the Opera’s $21 million share of the Veterans Building’s two-year-long seismic retrofit project (with Herbst Theater as its crown jewel), and there is something about the hard-to-determine color of the walls that make the hall appear institutional, rather than warm… although the white ceiling, doors, and trimming do make it look better.
Even in the midst of his struggle with muscular dystrophy, Blier is a giant of song presentation, and his “musical travelogue” spans the globe and musical genres, from Brazil (Ernesto Nazareth’s “Nené,” sung with a rich jazzy idiom by Edris) to France and Moises Simons’ “C’est ca la vie,” Nelson shining with spectacular, perfectly grounded high notes from a baritone), to Persia with an Anton Rubenstein song and “India,” with the Rimsky-Korsakov warhorse “Song of the Indian Merchant,” both performed with sonorous splendor by Walker.
The two-hour-long concert included Blier’s hilarious and instructive commentary, music of unlikely but felicitous combinations from Grieg to Noel Coward to Granados to Bizet and Hoagy Carmichael.
Opening the hall, Gockley said he and the company are “waiting with baited breath for feedback we will undoubtedly receive on the new venue, especially relating to its acoustic properties,” encouraging responses to dgockley@SFOpera.com, with “Atrium” in the subject line.
The future of the Atrium looks bright, with varied and important programming.