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Lyric Opera patrons will return (eventually) to new, wider seats and better sightlines

In a show of confidence about its future, the company has been replacing every seat and reconfiguring its audience space, and expects to finish the project this week.

The seats newly installed at the Lyric Opera House are slightly larger than the old ones.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Lyric Opera of Chicago is nearing completion of a replacement and reconfiguration of the seating in its 91-year-old theater at 20 N. Wacker — the first such project since a comprehensive overhaul of the vast room’s interior in 1996.

With slightly larger new seats throughout and a staggered configuration and widened aisles on the main floor, the changes are meant to improve sightlines, accessibility and audience comfort. But the renovation will reduce the overall capacity from 3,563 to 3,276.

“It’s an extraordinary moment when you can refigure and reseat an opera house of the size of the Lyric Opera House,” said Anthony Freud, general director, president and chief executive officer.

Despite experiencing financial pressures because of coronavirus restrictions on live productions, Lyric Opera was able to move ahead with this project because of a restricted grant about two years ago from an anonymous supporter.

In deference to the wishes of that donor, Lyric was not at liberty to reveal the amount of the gift, but Michael Smallwood, the company’s technical director, said it was more than $1 million and less than $5 million.

“It’s a beacon of hope,” Freud said, “because doing this enormous work within the auditorium really symbolizes our determination and optimism about the future.”

The project began shortly after the donation was received, with theater consultants, architects and other experts involved in the planning. One of the big challenges was making sure that the changes would not hurt the theater’s touted acoustics. To that end, the company hired Kirkegaard, a Chicago-based acoustical consulting firm that worked on the 1996 renovation.

The aisles are bowed, the seating in the rows is staggered and the cross-aisle is farther back in the new Lyric Opera theater configuration.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“And the projection is that the reseated auditorium will not be noticeably different from the previous seating,” Freud said. “If anything, the reverberation might increase marginally, which will make the acoustics warmer and even richer.”

Unlike the 1996 overhaul, when the theater’s existing seats were refurbished, Lyric Opera made the decision to replace all the seats with ones manufactured in Colombia by SERIES Seating. The company has supplied such venues as the Winspear Opera House in Dallas. Lyric officials settled on custom-designed seats with these attributes:

  • A light salmon, crushed-velvet fabric that is close to the color of the theater’s original seats.
  • Renewable, farm-grown wood from Colombia, dark-stained in the tone of the theater’s side walls, for each seat’s back, bottom and armrests.
  • Firm, high-density, hypoallergenic foam stuffing and lumbar support.
  • Rear weights that force the seats to pivot closed when not in use, instead of the former seats’ unwieldy spring retractors that frequently broke.

Each row of seats (instead of every other one) will have aisle lighting to make for safer, more even illumination. In the past, the balcony seats were 18-21 inches across and the main-floor ones were 19-22 inches. The new ones will be approximately an inch wider. “I think people will notice it, I really do,” Smallwood said of the slight increase in width.

Concrete is visible as the floors of the Lyric Opera House theater are stripped away during a renovation earlier this year.
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Unlike the previous seats, the new ones have been installed in a staggered fashion on the main floor for better sight lines, with an inch or so more legroom in some sections. This configuration required the main-floor aisles, which were previously straight, to be bowed. In addition, those aisles have been widened for better accessibility and flow, with 19 platforms and other disability seating added throughout the opera house. Seating arrangements on the balcony levels remain the same.

One of the most noticeable alterations in the theater is a cross-aisle about midway back on the main floor that has been shifted five feet farther from the stage to allow for an expansion of the theater’s front section of prime seats.

According to Smallwood, the increased value in tickets that comes from the enlargement of that usually sold-out section will help make up for the lost revenue from the loss of 287 seats in this new configuration.

The changes will mean subtle shifts in seating for many subscription holders, primarily those on the main floor. “We’re taking every precaution to move season ticket holders into a seat that is comparable to their previous location,” public relations manager Marianna Moroz said via email.

Originally, the seat project was going to be squeezed in between the end of the 2019-20 season and the start of the 2020-21 lineup, with work in the theater having to be alternated with on-stage preparations for the upcoming performances. But the shutdown of in-person productions because of the coronavirus meant the schedule has been much more relaxed — a bright spot in an otherwise grim time.

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago freelance writer.