With remodel complete, War Memorial Opera House is ready for its close-up

Years-in-the-making seat upgrade project concludes in time for ‘Tosca’ opening

If it were possible for Tosca to hurl herself from castle ramparts into the Tiber River in the eponymous opera by Puccini opening San Francisco Opera’s new season Aug. 21, then surely her leap could reach the ergonomic new orchestra seats with improved sightlines — installed just in time for opening night at the War Memorial Opera House — for a notably comfortable, viewer-friendly landing.

The new seats in the orchestra, grand tier and dress circle sections represent the third and final phase of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center’s remodeling project, a collaboration with San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet, to replace the landmark 1932 Beaux-Arts auditorium’s original seats. The project was scheduled to be done entirely this summer, but enjoyed a relaxed timeline after the opera and ballet canceled 2020 performances.

“As the pandemic progressed and it became clear that the Opera House would not be permitted to reopen in January 2021, the project was given the rare opportunity to ease off on the breakneck pace of a compressed manufacturing and install period, to accommodate COVID-related supply chain issues, and to expand the project timeline into new availability in the calendar,” said John Caldon, managing director of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

The project, which began in summer 2013 with chair replacement in the box level and resumed in summer 2015 in the balcony, was led by the Shalleck Collaborative — consultants that worked on renovations for American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Berkeley Repertory Theatre — in conjunction with San Francisco Public Works.

Caldon said the final, expanded phase of the Opera House project faced “unprecedented challenges” related to work schedules and supply chains affected by the pandemic.

Montreal-based company Ducharme Seating — which manufactured the new seats and has supplied seating in historic locales such New York’s Lincoln Center — also had projects in the works for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and at Massey Hall and the Princess of Wales in Toronto, which Caldon said are “part of an echelon of uniquely elegant performance venues to which the War Memorial Opera House belongs.” He added, “Though each project presented its own set of conditions, the appeal to working with Ducharme was they clearly understood that each theater has its own story to tell and must have a seat that harmonizes with its history.”

The new seats offer more leg room, have higher cushions and narrower arm rests (making them feel wider) and discreet cupholders. There are added seats for people with disabilities or using wheelchairs — including new accessible seating in side orchestra sections — as well as wider seats for wider patrons.

Perhaps the best upgrade is a new layout, which will help the audiences see the stage better.

“We have always known that we’ve needed to fix sightlines in the orchestra section,” said San Francisco Ballet Interim Executive Director Danielle St. Germain-Gordon. “We have improved upon this problem by removing a seat from every other row, and then staggering the rows in the orchestra. There’s an approximate loss of 72 seats total, benefitting both sightlines and the accessibility of the seats.”

“It’s an ingenious solution that preserves the aisle but ensures that people are not sitting directly behind someone else’s head,” San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock said.

New plush cushions, wooden seat backs and carpeting with resilient material in the orchestra section enhance acoustics, according to a study conducted by Threshold Acoustics.

“It was important to all parties that the seat replacement not affect the overall acoustic quality of the Opera House, particularly the reverberation time,” Shilvock said.

Patrons will be able to find their seats more easily, too, with new aisle lighting in the orchestra section. St. Germain-Gordon said the end seats’ built-in, dimmable LED lights illuminate the seat letter and the floor, helping ensure “an accessible and seamless patron experience.”

While this third phase of the project was budgeted at $3.53 million, the final cost is still being tabulated due to billing not yet processed, according to Caldon. (The second phase cost $987,622.)

The renovation was funded through facility fees of $1-$3 per ticket which were first assessed in 2014. The fees remain in effect to raise funds for future improvements — possibly to the antiquated cafe level restrooms that were augmented in the 1960s and 1990s (when facilities in grand tier and dress circle lobbies were added) — but still don’t meet patron demand.

While there is no current funding for restroom upgrades, which have immense costs, Caldon said, “The War Memorial is in conversation with the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera about future patron-oriented capital projects to implement, and improvements to restrooms are a big part of that discussion.”

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