Nearly everyone asks the same questions when they enter an opera house for the first time: Who sits in those seats, up high on the sides of the theater? What’s it like to sit there? As a longtime opera and classical music fan, I’ve wondered about those seats, too.
It’s not surprising that theater newbies assume box seats — small seating sections that stick out from the sidewalls above the main floor of the auditorium — are a restricted area, or that the price to watch from above is outrageously expensive. Aside from their physical separation from the rest of the theater, this image of exclusivity is reinforced by popular culture.
Julia Roberts’ turn as Vivian Ward in “Pretty Woman” defined opera for a generation when her character sat in a private box wearing an evening gown and borrowed jewels. Bond villains, when they listen to music, do so from a box at the opera. So do assassination targets, at least according to “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.”
So are box seats really all that? Are they that much better than the other seats in a performance hall — and how did they come about in the first place?
Ironically, box seats resulted from the democratization of opera — though they were initially reserved for the upper class. When the aristocracy began to build public theaters instead of hosting performances in their homes, they included boxes for themselves. “The history of box seating is as a private space within a public one,” says Jonathan Dean, in-house dramaturg for Seattle Opera.
Today, box seats are not even the most expensive place to sit in a theater, although many still prefer them. “People like the variety and choose their seats for different reasons. But they don’t often choose them for exclusivity,” says Mark Reddington, a partner at Seattle’s LMN Architects and the principal architect for McCaw Hall and Benaroya Hall in Seattle.
In 1737, the still-operational Teatro di San Carlo opened in Naples, Italy, establishing the horseshoe shape as the standard theater design for more than a century. The general, ticket-buying public stood on the main floor while the back and sidewalls were covered with locked, private boxes.
“Until the mid-19th century, the orchestra section had no seats; those were the cheap places,” says Christina Scheppelmann, general director of Seattle Opera. “Some boxes were owned by specific families. But also, those families paid to build the theater.”
The boxes often contained two rooms — one for viewing the theater, another for socializing.
As referenced in the opening scene of “The Age of Innocence,” the opera in America’s Gilded Age was still a place to see and be seen. “Boxes used to look across at each other because there was a different social reason to be at the theater,” Scheppelmann said.
Theater was a social outing, like a fancy party, until composer Richard Wagner conceived of theater as a form of civic communion. His ideas were embodied in his opera house, Bayreuth Festival Hall in the German state of Bavaria, which put an end to the construction of horseshoe-shaped theaters in the late 19th century. At Bayreuth, all the seats face the stage and the orchestra is hidden in a pit, directing the audience’s attention to the singers.
“Not too long after that, the big American opera barns started being built with the idea that art is supposed to give the whole culture an uplift,” Dean said. Theaters continued to be built with boxes, but their purpose changed.
Now, “boxes are an acoustic tool, and a design tool, to expand seating,” says Scheppelmann.
“Seattle is really lucky in having both a single-purpose music hall and a second, multipurpose hall,” says Reddington, referring to Benaroya Hall and McCaw Hall, respectively. For both performance spaces, LMN designed the boxes with acoustics in mind while maintaining clear sight lines from every seat. “All the wood surfaces and odd angles give the whole theater a thicker, richer sound,” says Dean.
Benaroya Hall, home of Seattle Symphony, plays with the social concept of the box, turning a private seating area into a communal one. At Benaroya, all the upper seating areas provide the acoustic benefits of boxes without the physical separation. “The social exclusivity of boxes was historically appropriate, but it doesn’t work for contemporary culture in the U.S. We blended the boxes in interlocking, shared spaces that are more democratic and fitting to our culture,” says Reddington. “I don’t think I’ve seen boxes done that way elsewhere.”
At McCaw Hall, where both Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet perform, two levels of boxes ascend each side of the auditorium, with seats angled toward the stage. Each box has slightly different sound qualities and unique vantage points — for instance, the front boxes are among the few seats in McCaw Hall with a good view of both the stage and the orchestra pit.
McCaw Hall also includes galleries, outer sections that rise steeply on the main floor. “It’s really rare, but it breaks down the scale of the space and improves sight lines and acoustics for the lower levels,” Reddington says. The galleries’ steeper rise improves visibility for those sitting there, while their wooden sides improve sound quality for those sitting in the center sections.
As for price, at $119, tickets for the boxes at a recent Seattle Opera performance of “Cinderella” at McCaw Hall fell close to the middle of the $64-$224 price range. At Benaroya, both the cheapest ($39) and most expensive ($134) seats for an upcoming Seattle Symphony performance of Rachmaninov’s “Symphony No. 2” are among the boxes.
So what is the best seat in the opera house?
“It depends on why you came,” says Dean. He compares theater seating to coffee orders — everyone has their own preference.
For Scheppelmann, “standing next to the stage manager backstage is the best place to be!”
But in the auditorium, “some people love the front row,” she said. “They want to see the expressions on the performers’ faces. I personally prefer a view from above, where I can see the orchestra pit and the stage.”
Reddington likes gallery seats for the opera. “It’s close to the stage, but still elevated. For the ballet, I like to be closer to the middle in the orchestra section.”
For the best sound, Dean recommends the cheap seats at McCaw Hall. “In the very back, especially in the corners, there is a ‘cupping effect’ that intensifies the sound.” The first time he sat there, “I was amazed at the crystal-clear consonants all the way in back. I didn’t think it was possible.”
But for the lowest possible cost, even the standing-room area on the main floor has good sound and sightlines to the stage. “It’s hard to see the supertitles, though,” Dean advises, “and be sure to wear good shoes.”
Seattle Opera board member Joshua Rodriguez put a lot of thought into choosing his season-subscription seats. Rodriguez grew up watching opera with his mother in a horseshoe-shaped theater in Spain. When he and his wife moved to Seattle several years ago, they experimented with different sections during their first season, looking for the best combination of sound quality and vantage point.
“It was important to us to enjoy not only the music, but the acting,” Rodriguez said.
The seats that finally felt just right to them were in a box. Rodriguez and his wife prefer “the first box on the first tier. We enjoy the third row because we’re in chairs that move with plenty of space.”
Like Rodriguez, modern audiences want to comfortably see and hear what is happening on the stage. Since Wagner forced the audience to watch the performance by orienting all the seats toward the stage, opera has become much more visual, with more elaborate sets and action, which has made designing for sight lines essential.
“Audiences and habits keep evolving, but the excitement of a story told to music — that has not gone away,” says Scheppelmann.
Ideally, that excitement will make the audience forget all about which seats they’re in.