- KERA radio story:
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Next week, of course, is the long-awaited gala opening of the Winspear Opera House. If you go, you can mingle on the grand staircase, check out the opera curtain painted by the Argentinian Guillermo Kuitca. You’ll find your seat, and just as the performance is about to begin — after the red glass, the solar canopy, the park outside, the gleaming new architecture, after all the talk of what this must mean for Dallas — the Winspear will show you One. Last. Marvel.
The lights will dim.
That’s it. That’s the marvel. The lights dim.
[background sounds of work going on in the performance hall]
Naturally, if that were all, there wouldn’t be so many people in the Winspear right now with their heads craned back, peering up at the opera house chandelier. These are employees of Linbeck Construction and JR Clancy, a firm that specializes in high-tech stage rigging. And they’re all trying to get the lights to do what they’re supposed to do.
Which is basically just go up and down. But to do it like no other chandelier.
The Winspear chandelier is made of 318 acrylic rods suspended from long, individual cables. Each acrylic rod is between six and eight feet long with an LED or light-emitting diode on the top. This causes the entire acrylic rod to glow like a light saber. All of these glowing light sabers form a huge cloud-cluster hanging in the auditorium. It’s 50 feet tall and tapers down to just 25 feet above the stage.
What the Winspear’s chandelier looks like is a meteor shower caught in mid-air. Or the sparks from a skyrocket that have stopped just short of hitting the ground. In fact, if you’re seated in orchestra row H, seat 13, you’re the target. Look straight up, and that mass of golden starlight seems as though it’s coming down on your head.
The way the chandelier’s design suggests shooting stars is hardly accidental. Jeff Innmon, project manager for the Winspear, explains how it evolved.
INNMON: “It began from a book of constellation patterns that the architects liked [Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey] and when they conceived the domed ceiling, they wanted to do an artistic painting of a constellation pattern and use pinpoint fiber optics to create a starlight pattern. Through conversations with lighting designer Claude Engle, they debated anywhere from 250 to 500 strands. So we went through a series of mock-ups using ropes at Clancy’s shop and used that to develop the density and layout.”
Eventually, it was decided to ditch the fiber optics in favor of the LEDs. And don’t go looking for your horoscope sign outlined somewhere in the lights. There’s no longer a specific constellation, either. Instead, the lighting pattern was derived from photos of stars – taken by the Hubble Telescope.
There is, of course, a tradition in opera houses of spectacular chandeliers. Here’s one from the Paris Opera. And one from the Vienna Staatsoper. One from Teatro Del’ Opera in Rome. The Kennedy Center. The one at Lincoln Center. And now for something German: the Bavarian State Opera’s in Munich.
Some of those chandeliers even get hauled up out of the way before the show starts. That’s what The Phantom of the Opera was all about: Chandelier goes up, chandelier goes down.
But that’s usually only one chandelier in the auditorium, which means one, maybe two hoists. For the Winspear chandelier to move, it needs 44 – 44 automated, computer-controlled hoists. Think of it as 44 separate chandeliers, all coordinated to move together. Each hoist controls seven or eight cables, requiring an array of incredibly complex rigging — which explains why JR Clancy is here. The Winspear’s chandelier was actually more of a rigging problem then a lighting one, says Innmon.
[sounds on the catwalk, walkie-talkie squawks and echoes]
It’s not until you’re up on the the lighting grid that you fully appreciate what’s involved. We’re in what might roughly be called the Winspear’s attic, directly beneath the metal and concrete roof, on a catwalk suspended a few feet over the plaster ceiling. It’s as dusty and eerie as all that might sound.
Robert Degenkolb is project manager for JR Clancy. He’s in charge of installing the chandelier.
That’s because each of the chandelier’s light sabers is sheathed in its own tube in the ceiling. That means – in addition to the jungle of cables and beams and conduits already up here — there are 318 steel pipes, like tree trunks 20 feet tall. On top of them rests a grate which is criss-crossed by a huge bird’s nest of moving pulleys and cables and hoists. The construction workers here have to crouch and crawl to get across. The cables fill the air so much it’s like some bizarre obstacle course on a reality game show. Stand up and you’ll get garroted.
[sound. “Ready?” “Yup.” Whirring noise.]
Those are the hoists kicking in. Just before the performance at the Winspear begins, all the lights in the auditorium will start to dim, and the Winspear’s entire chandelier, all 318 acrylic rods, will float up and retract into the ceiling, causing the lights to dim even more. As they do, the chandelier will subtly change from a golden tone to a more blue-ish one. Peering up, the audience will now see just the tips of the acrylic rods, still visible, still illuminated.
They’ll look like a scattering of stars in the night sky.
And — they will twinkle.