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Sunday, June 22, 2003
Patrons pony up for prime seats

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

The interior layout of McCaw Hall was redesigned to create more of a feeling of intimacy, and new seating was installed in the top balcony.
So where are you going to sit in McCaw Hall?

This question, a pressing one for Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet patrons, has had many arts lovers eagerly scanning their copies of the seating chart — and, in some cases, their bank balances.

Ticket prices for both companies are up; Seattle Opera's season will cost an average of 26 percent more than the current season in the interim facility, the Mercer Arts Arena. (The company's last rise in prices was more than 10 years ago.) The opera also has increased the number of seats — from 43 percent to 51 percent of the new house — that require mandatory donations. Subscriptions to the new 2003-04 season of five operas will range from $166 to $3,104.

Company general director Speight Jenkins says frankly that the company was "very worried" about how the ticket increases would be received. Very few storms of protest have rained down on company headquarters, however, a fact that Jenkins attributes to one factor: "People know they are going to get something really spectacular for their money."

McCaw Hall contains 96 women's restroom stalls, or more than double the number of women's stalls in the old Opera House.
PNB, too, has introduced a new seat-donation policy similar to one that has long been in place at the opera, much to the consternation of some longtime PNB subscribers. Donations made after Sept. 1, 2002, can be applied to the mandatory seat donations for premium areas in the new house, but many longtime subscribers are not donors — a circumstance that PNB would like to change.

Subscriber John T. Neville protested, "PNB repeatedly told subscribers that if they continued their subscriptions at the Ice Rink, then we would be given preferential seating assignments in the new hall. There was never any mention about seating being tied to donations."

Another PNB patron, Wendy Pringle, says her $600 tickets would rise to $1,400 this year, a premise she finds "totally absurd."

"I wouldn't mind if the tickets went up in increments, perhaps $200 per year to 'grandfather in' existing ticket holders," Pringle said. She's a preschool teacher whose own program is facing budget cuts, and fears that ballet is becoming "elitist" by requiring donations for good seats.

If there is controversy about the seat donations, at least the resident companies have staved off one major problem by making seating capacity of the temporary Mercer Arts Arena identical to the seating capacity in the new McCaw Hall (2,890 seats, a couple hundred fewer than in the old Opera House). Nobody will be left behind if they want to move on to the new facility.

But you can't please everybody.

"People see seats in an opera house the way you see a cemetery plot," Jenkins quips. "As if it's yours and you're going to be buried there. One subscriber for 10 years won't subscribe because he isn't getting the exact same seats. You have to re-seat people based on the length of time they've subscribed and the amount of money given to the opera and the hall. We've been very clear about that.

"And I have felt very sad about people who've sat in certain seats for a long time and now must move (to make way for others who have subscribed longer and/or donated more, and requested the same seats). But people will take umbrage and refuse to subscribe if you move them even two seats away from their desired seats."

Because the side walls of the main auditorium will be moved 32 feet closer together, the whole seating configuration will have a considerably more intimate feel than the original fan-shaped auditorium. The most striking change to the main floor is the addition of two side-seating areas that rise from the floor like a continuous ramp, connecting with the first balcony. Those seats, opera ticket manager Georgia Vickers says, are "really popular. People want to give them a try." Even the side balconies, whose view of the stage is often very restricted, reportedly have good sightlines. McCaw Hall patrons are going to have some very interesting choices.

"Even the last and highest seats are so much better than they were before," Vickers says. "It's an exciting time in this new house."

Ballet patrons, too, are turning up in large numbers at the ticket office. PNB artistic co-director Francia Russell says the company is experiencing "very strong ticket sales."

Typically, when new halls open, audiences are lured by the novelty and ticket sales spike; over time, however, it can be challenging to maintain that level of patronage. Such has been the case for some of the groups that play at Benaroya. At PNB, Russell says the number of patrons angered by the mandatory seat donations is "a tiny minority."

"This doesn't mean they aren't important," she adds. "Every person is important to us. We are trying our darnedest to respond to everyone's concerns and to make everyone happy, even if they can't have the same seats they had before. There are more affordable seats in the hall than ever before; there are plenty of tickets at reasonable prices. And the sightlines in the new hall are much improved, so it's going to be a great place to see our dancers."


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