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  • Laura Deming, cello

Shell Game

The first week back after the holiday break this season began with a PBS-recorded performance of Lyric Opera’s world premiere, Bel Canto, by Jimmy Lopez - to be aired on the “Great Performances” series later this year - followed by a rehearsal and performance with the orchestra on stage with legendary tenor Placido Domingo and internationally renowned soprano, Ana Maria Martinez.

The special Domingo/Martinez concert required the assembly of Lyric Opera’s orchestra shell, designed by Chicago architect Jean Gang of Studio Gang Architects. This beautiful structure, made of curved wooden panels over steel, was designed to be one with the Art Deco auditorium while enhancing the sound of a full orchestra, chorus, solo piano, chamber music, or whatever is planned on stage at the Civic Opera House.

Studio Gang, with the acoustical consulting firm, Threshold Acoutics and structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti, approached this project as if the shell were a musical instrument. It was built by Ravenswood Scenic Studios and unveiled for the first time at Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2014.

When not in use, the shell is stored in containers on the south side of Chicago, as most of Lyric Opera's sets are. It fills eight trucks. Once transported to the opera house, it takes an hour to unload each truck. The entire carpentry crew of about 40 work together (as shown in the YouTube video referenced below). Because the Bel Canto sets were in place for the PBS filming Jan. 5, the first rehearsal on stage with Domingo and Martinez had to be on the Bel Canto set. This meant that the only time Maestro Andrew Davis and the orchestra would hear the acoustic properties with the orchestra shell around and above them was at the performance!

Listening to each other is at the heart of what we do as orchestra musicians, so it was especially challenging, and I must say, exhilarating to take our places on stage for the Domingo/Martinez performance and hear ourselves within this new and stunning backdrop.

For a really fun and interesting time-lapse video of what it takes to set up our shell, watch the video below!

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