The Orange County Performing Arts Center has told the county's two principal chorales that the new hall cannot handle more than 140 singers on stage with an orchestra, due to a variety of concerns that include a problem with a major piece of stage equipment.
The news, given late last month to the Pacific Chorale and the Master Chorale of Orange County, has forced the groups to cut by half the 290 singers that were to perform at the Center's gala opening Sept. 29.
In interviews, Center officials said more singers could not perform because the Center's acoustical shell is too small. The shell, a kind of giant hood, surrounds performers on three sides.
Also, Center officials said their acousticians worry that too many singers would overpower the Los Angeles Philharmonic when it performs opening night and muddy that all-important inaugural performance. "The two chorales were advised that there was no plan to use all the members of both groups," said Thomas R. Kendrick, the center's executive director. "That would be a disaster. It's far too many acoustically, too many for the shell."
The prospect of some singers being left out has disappointed chorale members, a number of them said last week.
And the two groups fear that other performances of large works for orchestra and chorus, which they would participate in, could be jeopardized by the problem with the acoustic shell.
Kendrick said such concern is premature and exaggerated.
The groups are set to appear at the opening with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They will perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which concludes with a choral movement, the famous "Ode to Joy." For more than a year, the Pacific Chorale, with 140 members, and the Master Chorale, with 150, have planned to use all their members.
The shell is a reddish, three-sided, collapsible structure made of steel and plywood. It is standard equipment in most modern multi-use halls, designed to acoustically isolate performers. Without a shell, sounds tend to scatter and get lost in the cavernous stage areas that such facilities usually have.
Some sections of the shell are stored backstage, while others are suspended from theatrical rigging when not in use. The shell's size can change. John von Szeliski, a theatrical consultant to the Center, said that, at its largest, the shell is 68 feet wide and about 20 feet deep. He added that Center technicians are considering inserts that would add about 10 feet to the shell's depth, but Kendrick said that plan is only tentative.
Typically, the chorus stands in the shell. The orchestra will play out front, on the apron of the stage of the 3,000-seat theater.
The shell's size caused consternation two weeks ago, when the Pacific Chorale was in the Center to test the theater's acoustics. "The depth of the shell was a problem," said Pacific Chorale musical director John Alexander.
Alexander and Paul Bent, president of the Master Chorale, wondered about the fate of other large choral concerts on the Center's schedule. But Kendrick said the groups need not worry about other performances--such as that by the Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale of the Verdi Requiem next April.
"We can make any changes we have to make in the shell," Kendrick said, explaining that the expansion would not be possible by opening night. "What we have here is a brand new hall, and this is a time in which we're learning and experimenting," Kendrick said. "This is something we're working on."
The shell isn't the only reason why all members of the two choruses can't perform on opening night. Dennis Paoletti, one of three acousticians on the project, said he and his colleagues were alarmed by the sound level that 300 singers could create.
He said he first heard such numbers at a meeting about two weeks ago between the three acousticians and Center officials. Kendrick told him then there would be a chorus of about 300 singers for the opening night performance. "It was something we recommended against," Paoletti said. "Acoustically, it would be very, very powerful . . . it would overpower the orchestra."
Meanwhile, Kendrick said no one at the center had ever explicitly told the groups all their members could perform. Under no conditions, he said, would more than about 150 singers have been permitted. "I really think what we have is a misunderstanding," Kendrick said.
Officials with the groups agreed the Center was never specific about the number of singers, but they wondered why they weren't told earlier that not all their singers would be used. "We've been rehearsing for three weeks already," Maurice Allard, the Master Chorale's music director, said last week. "We were operating very much under the impression that we would all sing. Choices will have to be made."
Officials with both groups said about 20% of their members are paid singers, while the rest are volunteers. Virtually all of the members of both groups live in Orange County. Allard and Alexander said ability will probably determine who gets to sing Sept. 29, even though Alexander said someone has suggested that members draw lots.
Soprano Sharon Fair of Laguna Niguel was one of those who expressed disappointment. "I've sung with the (Pacific) Chorale for 12 years and have been looking forward to this thrill for a long time," she said. "I have an article posted on my bulletin board, and it says 'Orange County Chorales Will Open Center.' "