Rice University breaks new ground (symbolically) for $100 million opera theater

Fri Dec 08, 2017 at 12:56 pm
By Steven Brown

Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, spoke at Thursday’s symbolic groundbreaking. Seated behind are Bobby Tudor, president of the board of trustees (left) and David Leebron, Rice University president. Photo: Jeff Fitlow.

Rainy weather Thursday meant that Rice University leaders could only symbolically brandish their shovels indoors. But the Houston college’s Shepherd School of Music held its ceremonial groundbreaking for a $100 million theater that will transform its opera program.

With just 600 seats on four levels, the theater will be compact enough that students won’t have to strain their voices, Shepherd School dean Robert Yekovich said. But the pit will be substantial–able to hold 70 musicians. That will enable the school–which has an extensive orchestral program–to stage operas by the likes of Verdi and Puccini–repertoire beyond reach in its current tiny theater.

“We may be a small university,” Rice president David Leebron said. “But that is not a constraint on our vision and aspirations.”

Artist rendering of new opera theater building

The theater’s design harmonizes with the Rice campus’ dominant architectural style, which is sometimes called neo-Byzantine. The new building is the work of Allan Greenberg Architect, a firm with offices in New York and Alexandria, Va.

The theater is slated to open in late 2020. Donors’ pledges will cover all but $2 million of its $100 million price tag, Yekovich said, and the school is seeking commitments for the rest.

The Rice University Music and Performing Arts Center, as the building is currently titled, will also contain rehearsal and practice facilities.

Embracing a broader operatic repertoire will enable the opera program to attract a wider range of voice types, Yekovich said. “cement[ing] its rank among the country’s top-most schools of music.”

Rice’s opera program’s alumni include mezzo-sopranos Sasha Cooke and Anna Christy Stepp, baritone Nicholas Brownlee, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano. Other Shepherd School graduates include composer Caroline Shaw, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in music.

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