Behind the curtain, 'invisible' Music Hall upgrades make a noticeable difference


The wait is over: After vacating Cincinnati Music Hall for a year-and-a-half, our major performing arts groups have returned to their spectacularly renovated and remodeled home.

Since reopening in October, Music Hall has hosted concerts by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Cincinnati Ballet presented Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 26-29) and is readying its annual presentation of The Nutcracker (Dec. 14-24). Cincinnati Opera has some breathing room as it gears up for next summer’s season (June 14-July 31), but immense opera productions require extensive planning, a process that’s already under way.

To get a sense of what’s changed for audiences and the arts organizations that call Music Hall home, I talked with four insiders.

Evans Mirageas, The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera, is embarking on his 13th season, following two summers of productions at the Aronoff Center during the renovation period.

The Opera’s Director of Production, Glenn Plott, has overseen backstage activities for two decades in Cincinnati. His 40-year career in opera includes 11 seasons with the renowned San Francisco Opera, and he’s staged 260 operas. Plott has been to every nook and cranny of the hall. He played a major hand in strategizing changes.

Music Director Carmon DeLeone has the longest history: He’s been with the Cincinnati Ballet for nearly 50 years. As an assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony in the late 1960s, he was invited to conduct ballet performances. He’s been involved continuously ever since. He’s especially grateful for the grant from the Louise Nippert Musical Arts Fund that has ensured the CSO’s support for Ballet performances.

Kyle Lemoi, the Ballet’s director of production, is the newbie in this quartet. Arriving in 2015 from Indianapolis, he’s now becoming acquainted with Music Hall as a performance venue. His years of experience with ballet and theater companies from coast to coast and in Europe made him an invaluable partner with Plott in renovation planning. “I had a chance,” Lemoi says, “to see this building stripped down to its skeleton and rebuilt. Not many halls in America can compare. They did it right.”

Mirageas, Plott, DeLeone and Lemoi are understandably tentative, since revisions to Music Hall — acoustically, aesthetically, logistically and functionally — are still being assessed. But each is optimistic that this historic building is more than ready to meet the expectations of 21st-century arts lovers.

Highest priority: excellent patron experiences

Music Hall has been updated dramatically in numerous ways, always paying utmost attention to improving the experience for people who attend performances. The simple task of getting from place to place within the theater will be much easier.

Mirageas points out, “Music Hall’s traffic patterns were cobbled together from probably 10 different renovations between 1878 and the early 1970s. Although the lobby was large, there were not smaller areas to gather. The bars were inconvenient, and restrooms were certainly insufficient. It shouldn’t just be the art that is satisfying, but the experience itself. We now certainly have one of the grandest lobbies in the country.”

Lemoi also appreciates the open and airy feel of the lobby now that the awning over the front steps is gone and glass dividers separating the north and south halls from the foyer are removed. Concessions have moved from crowded side hallways to the front of the lobby space, and the box office has been relocated. Escalators, elevators and staircases now provide several options for moving from floor to floor.

“The improvements are that the softest sounds can be easily heard now. It’s very precise.” — Music Director Carmon DeLeone

Entering Springer Auditorium, attendees now pass through a vestibule with doors on both sides. “It provides more sound isolation as well as light isolation for people in the hall,” Mirageas explains. The sound in the hall itself has been carefully managed by one of the country’s best acousticians, Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks. Reviews have positively noted the careful preservation of the hall’s long-admired warm sound, as well as added clarity.

DeLeone says acquaintances asked if he feared that the orchestra’s sound would be ruined. “I always said, ‘No, I’m eager to see what it’s going to be like.' So far, it’s the same sort of sound that I member always hearing.” As the CSO’s assistant conductor in the 1960s and '70s, he sat in just about every seat in Music Hall to listen. “The improvements are that the softest sounds can be easily heard now. It’s very precise.”

Mirageas has a tip for finding the best sound: “In any auditorium, the higher up you go, the more blended sound you will get. Buy a ticket for Music Hall’s balcony or gallery and get as good if not even slightly better acoustic than in the orchestra. That’s true of every hall in the country. In Music Hall there isn’t a bad seat acoustically.”

And no matter where you sit, you’ll be more comfortable. While the total number of seats has decreased, the 2,500 that remain are wider, with more legroom and added drink holders on most seats, making for a more comfortable seated experience.

What you can't see makes a difference

Many more of the changes in Music Hall are behind the scenes, what Plott calls “invisible systems” — electrical, rigging and so on. When Music Hall opened in 1878, it did not have a proscenium stage; that renovation came 20 years later. Numerous changes over 139 years resulted in a cluttered backstage area that was tough to navigate with scenery and performers.

Even before Music Hall was vacated in 2016, an immense column, backstage left, supporting the north wall of the auditorium, was removed. Plott says before that, “If you had any scenery wider than 16 feet or so, you couldn’t get by it. All opera scenery is bigger than 16 feet.” When Wagner’s Die Meistersinger was staged in 2010, a large house had to be cut in half to move it onstage in pieces for reassembly between acts.

The replacement of the column with a truss increased overhead clearance from 26 to 32 feet. “That’s significant,” Plott says. “Now we have more compatibility with 20 or so peer companies from whom we rent scenery and with whom we co-produce. Our slate of potential productions has doubled.”

“Now we have more compatibility with 20 or so peer companies from whom we rent scenery and with whom we co-produce. Our slate of potential productions has doubled.” — Opera Director of Production Glenn Plott

Lemoi says the Ballet’s February 2018 production of Carmina Burana with Salt Lake City’s Ballet West will benefit. “They had to build the set to fit their theater, which is smaller than Music Hall. When they saw Music Hall they were like, ‘Wow, it will fit in here, no problem!’ That’s really good.”

Lemoi cites the creation of a new backstage passage. “You used to have to go up stairs, cross over and come back down. If you wanted to move crates from one side of the building to the other, they had to roll across the stage or out into the lobby and around.” Backstage is now all on one level.

Plott says, “The mop water from cleaning the backstage bathrooms, the garbage — everything had to move across the stage, despite scenery and cables across the floor. Now anyone can come in the stage door, go to the end of the crossover and all the way to the rehearsal hall without having to cross the stage. Off that corridor are the prop shops, the technical director, the electrical shop, the musicians’ lounge, restrooms and the production manager’s office. The wig room was moved down by the dressing rooms. It’s a small efficiency that in the long run will be big.”

Plott and Lemoi both worked on reallocating space in Music Hall. “Just about nothing was sacred,” Plott says. “We went around and around because each company had different uses, and we all had ideas on how those spaces should be used.” That called for negotiation and collaboration. The process was helped by the discovery of tucked-away, unused spaces. “On the back wall of a new dressing room are now two more dressing rooms — in found, undeveloped space!” Plott says.

Lemoi says logistics are now much easier, with the freight elevator moved from the front of the building to the back, an extra ground-level loading entrance and a second, wider loading dock that has been added on the building's 14th Street side.

Both men say things won’t look all that different to audiences, but these efficiencies pave the way for smoother productions.

A whole new space for rehearsing and performing

All four Music Hall professionals are pleased by the addition of the Wilks Studio, a reclaimed second-floor space in the North Hall. Plott values it as a second rehearsal room. “We have never been able to rehearse our first opera in Music Hall because of conflicts with the May Festival's schedule. Now we can actually rehearse where we’re supposed to be.”

“We’re going to do company class there. For the October open house, it was standing room only! You could use it as a rehearsal space, event space or performance space.” — Ballet Director of Production Kyle Lemoi, on the addition of the Wilks Studio

Lemoi sees the studio as an exciting performance space, especially since he and his team have built a “sprung” floor that provides extra support for dancers. “We’re going to do company class there. For the October open house, it was standing room only! You could use it as a rehearsal space, event space or performance space.”

DeLeone says it can make ballet rehearsals more productive: “When we are rehearsing with the orchestra, one cast on the mainstage, we might have the secondary cast using piped-in sound in the studio so they can rehearse there.”

The Opera will present one of its five 2018 productions in the studio, the world premiere of an intimate piece by composer Laura Kaminsky. As One, an uplifting coming-of-age story about a transgender woman, uses two singers and a string quartet. 

“We hope it won’t be used just by the resident companies," Plott adds. "We’ll encourage other groups to come in for performances, meetings and gatherings.”

Co-existence and community support

Music Hall is an unusual venue since it’s used for diverse performances. Co-existing and sharing is essential, and collaborating on the renovation has underscored the importance of working together. Plott says, “It’s been a marriage of intent to make this a good place. It’s been a team effort all the way.”

"It is a testament to an aesthetic here in Cincinnati: People get behind something, check their egos at the door and recognize the greater good of making a venue like Music Hall as great as it possibly could be." — Opera Director Evans Mirageas

Mirageas adds, “There are very few places I can think of on the planet that are multi-function venues that work acoustically as well as Music Hall. The hall is remarkable because it works so well for all the lively arts.”

Mirageas says a recent article in The New York Times praising Music Hall could have been even more laudatory. New York City has been wrangling over the concert hall at Lincoln Center with no clear solution. “With far fewer funds we have created something close to a miracle. I think it is a testament to an aesthetic here in Cincinnati: People get behind something, check their egos at the door and recognize the greater good of making a venue like Music Hall as great as it possibly could be with the funds we had. Other cities should look to our leadership, artistic, civic and financial, as a model for getting things done.”

Mirageas calls Music Hall “the embodiment of the spirit of the city — the reasons for which it was built and the reasons for which it’s been renovated. We have this singularly beautiful, multifunctional, welcoming front door to culture in our city.” That’s what arts lovers will find when they visit in the months and years ahead.

Support for this Cincy Sets the Stage series is provided by the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH).

Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.
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