Valencia\'s&nbsp;<span>El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia</span>
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Postcard from Valencia

Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny explored Valencia’s Calatrava-designed Arts District, and was impressed with its ambition and bold design.

published Sunday, November 6, 2016



Dallas — One of the welcome perks of my job is being able to attend opera productions in different locations, with the goal of meeting new conductors, directors, designers and singers. Last month, following a family wedding in the U.K., I flew to Valencia, Spain, to see Keri-Lynn Wilson conduct Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, which gave me a chance to explore the city’s unique arts district prior to the excellent performance (More on that, later).

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences was designed by native-born architect Santiago Calatrava, and Félix Candela. (Closer to home, Calatrava designed the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas, as well as the Margaret McDermott Bridge. There’s also a large-scale, perpetually moving Calatrava sculpture, “Wave,” adjacent to the Meadows Museum). Valencia is home to Spain’s third-largest urban population; a city that was already a tourist destination before the construction of the arts district due to its rich heritage and proximity to the Mediterranean. The construction of the City of Arts and Sciences is a tangible civics lesson in how to turn a natural disaster into a public benefit.

In 1957, the river Turia flooded catastrophically and, in response, the river floodplain was drained and the river rerouted. Initially, the riverbed was turned into a sunken park, which eventually became the site of the current Arts District. This construction project has attracted heated controversy, in large part due to the substantial construction costs (some sources show that the final costs were more than triple the original estimates), and the associated municipal debt, which put pressure on the city’s finances.

Whatever one’s view on the question of the project’s ultimate affordability, I think that pretty much everyone would agree that this futuristic complex reflects a bold investment in civic pride, not to mention the arts and sciences. The City of Arts and Sciences incorporates six major buildings, and an important pedestrian and auto bridge. These include the 3D cinema L'Hemisfèric (opened 1998); El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe (2000), a large interactive science museum which includes a basketball court on the ground floor; L’Umbracle (2001), a giant covered garden built over a parking lot; L’Oceanogràfic (2003), Europe’s largest aquarium, designed by architect Félix Candela; L’Àgora (completed in 2009, but normally closed to the public); the opera house and performing arts center El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (2005), surrounded by 87,000 square meters of reflecting pools and public space; and El Pont de l’Assut de l’Or (2008), an architecturally significant bridge which connects the sides of the dry riverbed of the river Turia between the Science Museum and the Àgora. The size and scope of this complex is breathtaking, and in the past year, I noticed that many more organized tour groups are adding this arts district to their cultural itineraries.

For sheer visual spectacle, my favorite building is L'Hemisfèric, which includes a 3D IMAX Cinema, planetarium and laserium. The building, which is set in a giant reflective pool, resembles a giant eyeball, with a moveable eyelid. The size of the exterior shell dwarfs the IMAX Theater inside, which is one of the sources of debate given the additional construction costs, but it looks spectacular—especially at night when floodlit. Another highlight of the district is the Príncipe Felipe Science Museum, whose soaring design echoes a giant skeleton—whale or dinosaur, depending on your point of view.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
Valencia's El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia

The concert I attended was in the futuristic Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, whose curving shape resembles a spherical spaceship with legs. The building can be approached at different levels, and, frankly, I struggled to find the box office, but the entry to the theater was impressive, and the reflecting pool and floodlights add an element of visual drama. The spectacular donor lounge inside overlooks several of the buildings within the district, and deserves high marks. One of the most important aspects of this building, in common with others in the district, is the extraordinary level of design creativity on a grand scale, but equally evident down to the smallest of details. The six buildings are bold and innovative, but there are many subtle design details which make the district a joy to explore on foot, while reflecting on the careful thought that went into the planning.

The primary impetus for my trip was to see Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson conduct, and the co-production with Teatro Real of L’elisir d’amore created the ideal opportunity. I was also interested to see the type of production that would blend well with such a contemporary theater. In this case, the production was a revival of a popular production directed by Damiano Michieletto, with scenic designs by Paolo Fantin. Perhaps as a nod to Valencia’s location, the opera had been set on a beach, with the action taking place around the “Bar Adina.”  (The heroine of the opera, for those not familiar with it, is Adina). The second act was dominated by a giant inflatable water slide and wading pool, complete with pneumatic palm trees. Partway through this act, the slide and pool were filled with large quantities of synthetic foam, which appeared very real, but kept the costumes of the principals and chorus dry as they frolicked in the pool. I found the production entertaining, striking a good balance between staying true to the original story and providing a production worthy of such a modern opera house. As one might expect in a continental European production, there was a lengthy sex scene near the end of the opera, but even that was tastefully done (at least, as far as these moments go). It was easy to see why this production attracts enthusiastic audiences, as it was visually interesting and well directed, and avoided the trap of coming across as maudlin.

The opera house, for all of its visual splendor externally, suffers somewhat from a very “live” acoustic in the performance chamber due to frequent use of hard interior reflective surfaces.  While these are attractive decoration, they also provide a perfect “mirror” for the sound and can easily overwhelm the singers. Maestra Wilson delivered an excellent performance, full of delicacy and finesse, maintaining balance between singers and orchestra by carefully controlling any potential over-exuberance in the pit. Under her guidance, much of the string playing was exceptional, especially in the extended pizzicati passages. While it may seem like a detail, I have rarely heard such a round, resonant tone in these sections, and it created memorable moments of warm tone color. Karen Gardeazabal, a member of the Centro Plácido Domingo, gave a mature and musically confident performance as Adina, well beyond what I would have expected from a singer in a young artist program; I have heard her in auditions in the past, and she continues to impress me with her potential.

Not unlike the opera house in Oman, Valencia’s Arts District represents a major investment, and in some cases, a leap of faith, regarding the benefits of creating and maintaining a world-class Arts District. And, perhaps inevitably, Valencia and Dallas invite some comparison. Both cities have invested a billion dollars or more in buildings designed by the world’s best architects. In the case of Dallas, most of those original funds came from private sources, whereas in Valencia they were government funded. In both cities, ongoing maintenance remains a significant financial commitment, and—as both have found—maintenance is never as attractive a use of funds as the initial construction. This is particularly true in the case of Valencia, where I observed many workers cleaning the spotless ornamental pools around the buildings. Valencia’s warm and humid climate accelerates decay of paint, plaster surfaces, and even some metal supports. The large reflecting pools require significant amounts of chlorine to prevent the growth of algae; this introduces oxidizing chemicals near vulnerable building surfaces, and accelerates the process that leads to decay. Perhaps most significantly, though, the arts and science organizations that operate in the facilities in Valencia are heavily supported by the government, whereas in the United States, non-governmental sources provide the bulk of the operating support.

As I have written previously, one of the ongoing challenges for arts and cultural institutions in the United States is engaging the same level of enthusiasm in the donor community for ongoing operating support (and maintenance), as was generated in the original fundraising campaigns for building construction and landscaping. Without that support, the resident companies can never realize their full potential.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Sunday of each month in








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Postcard from Valencia
Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny explored Valencia’s Calatrava-designed Arts District, and was impressed with its ambition and bold design.

by Keith Cerny

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