It's the orchestra pit. It was built in the mid 1980s exactly the way Houston Grand Opera wanted it, with the back half of the pit under the edge of the stage, much like the pit in the historic world-class Bayreuth Opera House in Germany, because they wanted Houston's opera house to be like Bayreuth. In that arrangement, several rows of musicians sit and play under the stage overhang, and that's how it's been for 18 seasons, for HGO and Houston Ballet, the Wortham's two resident arts groups. Opera Technical Director Greg Weber says they now know that it was a mistake to copy Bayreuth, because Bayreuth and the Wortham are not even remotely similar in design, and, clearly, what works at Bayreuth doesn't work at the Wortham.
To balance the orchestra sound, individual musicians have been forced to play overly soft or loud, which means the players couldn't hear themselves or each other, and singers on the stage had problems hearing the music. The Opera and the Ballet installed speakers at the back of the stage so singers, chorus members and dancers could hear the music.
The pit's ventilation caused problems. Air conditioning drafts were so strong and the temperature so cold some musicians wore coats to stay comfortable. The cold affected the orchestra's tuning. Double-bass players sat closest to the air vents, and their instruments would lose their pitch in minutes. They had to retune constantly. No one liked the old pit, even music critics. The Wall Street Journal critic wrote that building a pit like the one at Bayreuth has not had happy results in Houston.
Greg Weber says they made some small changes in the pit and stage configuration in 1996, in the hope of improving the sound, but it didn't work as well as they hoped. Then, two years ago, they decided to just scrap the old pit and build a new one. They had two primary considerations.
HGO and Houston Ballet got two million dollars from the City of Houston to pay for moving the orchestra pit completely out from under the stage, farther out into the audience area, and this work is now underway in the Wortham's large hall. Will this change really make that much of a difference?
In an email from Australia, where he's conducting Nabucco at the Sydney Opera House, HGO Orchestra Conductor Patrick Summers said "it's optimal to have all the musicians playing in the same acoustic space, because sound travels up, not out, as most people think. In the old orchestra pit, half of which is covered by the stage, it's impossible for the orchestra to have any type of acoustic balance."
Greg Weber says that's why they're convinced this change is the right thing to do, for the large hall's musical integrity, for audiences, opera singers, and for musicians. To make sure it would be done right this time, they were careful to get acoustics engineers
Weber says starting this fall, opera and ballet audiences will hear the orchestra better and more clearly than they ever have. Houston Ballet Managing Director C.C. Conner says he's delighted and relieved, because his dancers will finally be able to hear the music without speakers.
Conner says the new and open orchestra pit will make all the difference in the world for ballet performances.
With the larger orchestra pit sticking five feet farther out into the hall, the Wortham is losing two sections of seats on the front row, 22 seats in all. The new and improved Wortham Center orchestra pit will be finished in time for Houston Ballet's season in September. Houston Grand Opera's season begins in October. The $2 million cost is coming from the City's Convention and Entertainment Center budget, which is funded by the local hotel-motel room tax.