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Masterclass and Company

Il Divo

New York City Opera hits the right note

12 November 2009

The New York City Opera 2009-10 season opened last weekend with a gala programme at its newly renovated home, named after billionaire philanthropist David H. Koch, who pledged US$100 million to the theatre in July 2008.

As well as reconfiguring the auditorium’s layout, replacing seats and updating stage facilities, extensive work has been undertaken to improve the acoustics, and it’s this aspect of the renovations that has attracted most interest from commentators.

Designed in the early 1960s by leading avant-garde American architect, Philip Johnson, the Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater was formerly known as New York State Theater. For more than three decades its acoustics were attacked by critics, so in 1999 New York City Opera (NYCO) took the controversial decision to introduce a ‘sound-enhancement’ amplification system, ironically encouraging many critics to intensify their attacks.

“The dreadful thing about the acoustics in the New York State Theater was the ‘flatness’ of the sound”, writes New York-based arts journalist, Robert Levine. “It wasn't that you couldn't hear the instruments or the singers with clarity, but the sound dropped dead the moment that it happened. The amplification system merely made it sound, at times, as if the hall were a tiled bathroom.”

US$100 million later, the amplification system and carpeting is gone, and new panels to throw the sound into the hall have been installed along with a whole host of other more subtle alterations.

This week, Levine attended NYCO’s new production of Don Giovanni , staged by Christopher Alden. Speaking to Opera Now afterwards, Levine described his first-hand experience of the acoustical alterations:

“Every vocal and instrumental thread is now clear, and we, the audience, ‘feel’ the music around us. The sound is brighter than it is warm: from my seat in the First Ring it didn't have the underfoot rumble one feels at Carnegie Hall, for instance, although friends downstairs, on the Parterre, claimed that the bass is more ‘live’. Further upstairs, I was told that the sound is superbly focused.”

“All in all, congratulations (and a huge sigh of relief) are in order.”

Find out more

In the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Opera Now: Robert Levine interviews NYCO’s new boss George Steel and reviews of Christopher Alden’s production of Don Giovanni.

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