Visitors packed Tagney Jones Hall for opera performances during the grand opening. The glass box performance hall opens up to Mercer Street, where passersby can see the multiple activities that will occur inside.
Visitors packed Tagney Jones Hall for opera performances during the grand opening. The glass box performance hall opens up to Mercer Street, where passersby can see the multiple activities that will occur inside.

The Seattle Opera played short performances to packed crowds during Saturday’s grand opening of the Opera Center next to McCaw Hall.

The $60 million facility was funded through public and private donations generated during two capital campaigns, the first being put on hold following the 2008 Great Recession.

Seattle Opera long knew it would need to be out of the old South Lake Union carpet factory it kept its rehearsal and office spaces in by November 2018, said Maryanne Tagney, immediate past president of the Seattle Opera Board of Directors. She added she was thankful that the Rogers family made that property available until a new home could be found.

“They’re right next to Amazon in South Lake Union,” she said. “I’m pretty sure they will be happy to sell the building.”

The City of Seattle made the old Mercer Arena, constructed in Seattle Center back in 1928, available to Seattle Opera; that offer was set to expire at the end of June 2014.

“We put a team together in January 2014,” Tagney said. “We had our first meeting with Forterra.”

The old arena didn’t fit in with Seattle Opera’s plans for its new center, but fir lumber from the roof was reclaimed and used in the new building.

The 105,000-square-foot LEED gold Seattle Opera Center was designed by NBBJ and constructed by Lease Crutcher Lewis, with the opera board raising more than half of the $28.5 million in private funding and the rest coming from major donors outside the board, Tagney said. The city, county and state chipped in about 25 percent, which funds the community and education portions of the new center.

Construction broke ground in June 2017, and the certificate of occupancy was granted earlier this month. A private opening was held on Dec. 8, and included the board, donors, government officials and others who helped construct the opera center.

“It’s been a long time in the making this building, of course,” Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang told Queen Anne News. “What I really like about it is already people have the feeling that this is an open place.”

There is 20,000 square feet of community programming and education space, which the company has never had before. Lang said he didn’t think many people were even aware of Seattle Opera’s presence in the old SLU carpet factory.

Large productions will continue in McCaw Hall, including the upcoming Verdi’s “Il trovatore,” which runs Jan. 12–26. The Opera Center is connected to McCaw Hall, making it easy to roll over sets for performances.

“So there you go, we took a bunch of trucks off the road,” Tagney said.

The same goes for hauling costumes back and forth from SLU for multiple adjustments, Lang said, which often meant four trips with four carloads of outfits.

“It was not an easy operation, and some costumes are heavy,” he said.

The melodrama “Il trovatore” includes sword fights and a number of Spanish soldiers, each fashioned with heavy armor.

From the ground level of the new Opera Center, visitors looked down on the large Costume Shop; people outside could also look in from a viewing garden.

During the Dec. 15 grand opening, people were able to watch staff putting together costumes and admire the collection hanging on racks. Costume Shop manager Susan Davis talked about the space and designs for the costumes in “Il trovatore.”

The third floor provides office space for Seattle Opera’s 75 full-time administrative staff, and an additional space has been set aside to lease to another nonprofit, as outlined in Seattle Opera’s agreement with the city.

The opera center has three multipurpose studios, the West Studio as large as the one in McCaw Hall, so casts can rehearse on actual sets brought in through a large roll-up door. Visitors on Saturday were able to watch cast members rehearse there, and there was sword-fighting being practiced in another studio.

Tagney said a number of smaller productions at the center will be offered at little to no cost.

“We don’t know yet how this is going to work; this is a completely new process,” she said. “We’ve never had the facilities before to offer this.”

Named in honor of Tagney and her husband David Jones, Tagney Jones Hall provides seating for more than 300 for performances and educational and community events. A “glass box performance hall,” its floor-to-ceiling glass exterior lets people outside see what’s happening inside.

Visitors lined up Saturday to get a seat in Tagney Jones Hall to hear performances at the start of every hour during the grand opening. The fir lumber from the old arena roof was used on the hall’s seating risers.

Lang said the open spaces in the Seattle Opera Center exemplify how theater has changed, offering behind-the-scenes previews of what’s to come rather than keeping everything quiet until after opening night.

“You’re denying your traction time to get the audience interested,” he said.

Lang said Seattle Opera has a four-year grant from the Wallace Foundation to research and develop a sustainable audience.

“They’re amazed by the way the statistics of our audience has changed,” he said, the grant in its third year.

Operas were always written for a local audience, Lang said, and having the Opera Center open to the public and making performances accessible is the right way to remain successful, the Seattle Opera director pointing to a line of visitors cued up outside as evidence of that.

And what the Opera Center offers for the performers also can’t be overlooked.

“They can’t believe the difference,” Lang said, “and they will feel happy, and it will reflect in their performance.”