The opening act

Seattle Opera breaks ground on new administrative, rehearsal building

Standing at a podium that overlooked a clearing at the corner of Mercer Street and 4th Avenue North, Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang pulled out a key, one he found reaching into the back of his car.

“This key, this little key, was in fact the key to the Mercer Arena,” he told the crowd, gathered on a loading dock tucked between Memorial Stadium and the empty pit that once housed the 5,000-seat facility.

The long vacant building was demolished earlier this year, but last Tuesday officially ended that chapter of the site’s history, as the Opera broke ground on its new $60 million administrative and rehearsal building next to its performance home at McCaw Hall. 

“The arts move on. Cities move on. And this new building which we’re creating is a way Seattle Opera is also moving on into a new era,” Lang said.

The four-story building — slated for completion by the end of next year — will house offices, rehearsal space, and shop space for costume and prop design currently located in South Lake Union.

Lang said the new building will be the Opera’s “civic home,” and that it will enable the organization to serve diverse communities of all ages and financial backgrounds in ways it has been unable to before. He said that currently, many assume the Opera isn’t active in the community outside of their McCaw Hall performances, “because we’re not visible in the place where they expect it to be.” The new building should change that.

“We’ve all seen South Lake Union change into a very thriving neighborhood, and it’s been great to see that happening, but I think we’re really thrilled to return to our spiritual roots here in the theatre district, this amazing community space where we can bring art to so many people,” Lang said.

Lang also noted that the Opera’s carbon footprint will be slashed without the need for trips between South Lake Union and the Center, and that there will be new job opportunities for local artists, along with workshops and vocational training programs to “build the pipeline for living wage jobs accessible to anyone interested in a job in the performing arts.”

Maryanne Tagney, the former president of the Seattle Opera Board of Directors, said she believes “opera has the power to change lives,” and that the new facility will allow them to “create artistic experiences that engage people from all walks of life.”

She also noted just how much work goes into each production, beyond those performing the finished product on stage.

“It’s one of those art forms that requires collaboration across many, many departments,” Tagney said. “You sing, you act, sometimes you dance, you make scenery, you sew costumes. There are so many things that go into making an opera. It’s not just the singers on the stage, the orchestra in the pit, it is also all that huge crew behind it that has brought their talents in so many ways to put on this performance.”

Also on hand was Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who touched on the importance of the arts in a broader sense, noting the difficult conversations in the months to come “around the issue of police and racism,” after the shooting death of Charleena Lyles by Seattle Police officers earlier this month.

“One of the things that the arts and culture do for us as a city and as a community is allow us to address our pain and issues such as racism that are so very difficult to deal with,” Murray said.

The outgoing mayor also discussed how the Opera’s new home for day-to-day operations factors into a broader plan for the Seattle Center campus.

Murray said construction of the new building, along with the impending redevelopment of KeyArena, and the renovations at the Space Needle are all part of an effort to make Seattle Center an “internationally iconic district.”

“We are poised to make this a global center, a global cultural district to match anything in the world,” he said.

Lang echoed that sentiment, saying that he hopes the development is a “trigger for the regeneration of the campus as a whole.”

Most of the funding for the project has been raised, with approximately one-quarter coming from city, county, and state sources.

“This is an example of a public-private partnership at its best,” Lang said.

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