'The opposite of airlines': When larger audiences require fewer seats

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'The opposite of airlines': When larger audiences require fewer seats
The new seats at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco feature wooden backs and cup holders, Aug. 9, 2021. The Opera House put in roomier seats just in time to try to lure audiences back from the couches they got used to during the shutdown. Kelsey McClellan/The New York Times.

by Adam Nagourney

SAN FRANCISCO (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Wagner was the worst. Five hours — sometimes more — of squirming in 1932-era seats at the War Memorial Opera House here, sinking into lumpy, dusty cushions, suffering the bulge of the springs and the pinch of the wide armrests, craning for a glimpse of the stage around the head of the tall person one row ahead.

“Particularly on a long opera — oh, my God,” said Tapan Bhat, a tech executive and a season-ticket holder at the San Francisco Opera since 1996.

When the San Francisco Opera opens Saturday, starting its scaled-back 99th season with Puccini’s “Tosca” after a shutdown of more than a year, those punishing seats will be gone. The opera has used its forced sabbatical to complete a long-planned $3.53 million project to replace all 3,128 seats with more comfortable, roomier ones.

And San Francisco is not alone. Theaters, concert halls and sports arenas around the country have been increasingly investing in comfort in recent years — with wider and plusher seats — to try to accommodate audiences that have grown in breadth, if not in numbers. In the early 1960s, when the War Memorial Opera House was only a few decades old, the average weight of adult men in the United States was 168 pounds, according to federal data; it is now 199.8 pounds.

Since the pandemic struck, the owners of theaters and live venues have come to see such investments as more urgent than ever. As coronavirus restrictions are dropped, presenters face the challenge of luring back patrons who, during more than a year without theaters, have grown accustomed to consuming home entertainment from the sprawling comfort of their own couches and recliners.

“The entire patron experience has really been under a lot of scrutiny,” said Gary F. Martinez, a partner with OTJ Architects, a Washington-based firm. “Venues are working diligently to improve that experience. We’ve never spent so much time on seats.”

The Lyric Opera of Chicago put in wider seats in the summer of 2020, following the example of the Music Hall in Cincinnati and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. On Broadway, where older theaters have been notorious for cramped quarters, the Hudson Theater added wider seats during a recent renovation. The seats in the new Yankee Stadium are wider than those in the old one, and venues including the Daytona International Speedway in Florida and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore added wider seats during recent renovations.

Even before the shutdown, audience members of all sizes were growing accustomed to ever-larger, ever-sharper television screens with an ever-broader array of streaming options. And when people did go out, many had seen the what-could-be potential in movie theaters that had installed wide, comfortable stadium-style seats, which recline and have slots for drinks and, sometimes, trays for snacks. Why pay as much as 20 times the cost of a movie — tickets at the San Francisco Opera go for up to $398 a seat — to be scrunched up in a cramped holdover from the last century?

“I think anything we can do to break down barriers and improve the experience we should be doing,” said Matthew Shilvock, the general director of the San Francisco Opera. “If someone is having an uncomfortable evening at the opera that is an experience they should not be having.”

“The seats have historically been patrons’ No. 1 concern for the building,” he said. “Letters to me. Letters to the box office. Letters to the city. And with some justification. We had springs coming through some of the seats.”

San Francisco put in its new seats just in time for the reopening of the opera and the San Francisco Ballet, which share the stage of the War Memorial.

The new, ergonomically tuned chairs are slightly higher, roomier and firmer than the old ones. There is 2.5 inches more leg room, and the chairs have been staggered to improve sightlines, giving even the shortest operagoers and balletomanes a better shot at seeing what is taking place onstage. The seat widths are about the same as before, ranging from 19 inches to 23 inches, but the new armrests are narrower, making seats feel roomier. And there are cup holders for those who want to bring a drink to their seat. (Ice, though, with all its clinking distractions, is not permitted).

Comfort comes at a cost: This will mean a loss of 114 seats, and the revenue they bring.

The situation in Chicago was not quite as dire as in San Francisco — its seats were at least renovated in 1993 — but they were decidedly in need of replacement. The widths of Lyric seats ranged from 18 to 22 inches before the renovation; now they range from 19 to 23 inches. The number of seats there was reduced from 2,564 to 2,274.

“We are doing the opposite of airlines,” said Michael Smallwood, the technical director at the Lyric Opera, referring to the practice of cramming more narrow seats onto planes. “Now you can sit at home and watch Netflix. People want to be comfortable. Operas want to be long. People expect different things.”

“To put it bluntly, it takes a lot more effort to sell a ticket these days,” Smallwood said. “You want it to be comfortable so they’ll be here again.”

Many of the seats in the New York Philharmonic’s Lincoln Center home, David Geffen Hall, will be a bit wider as well when its current renovation is complete. While most of the seats in its old hall were 20 inches wide or less, more than three-quarters of the new seats will be 21 inches wide or wider.

The seat backs in San Francisco were once covered with cushioning. The back of each seat is now wood; doing away with that cushioning means more leg room for those sitting behind. “I am 6-foot-1 without shoes,” said Danielle St. Germain-Gordon, the interim executive director of the San Francisco Ballet. “And I have very long legs. They were the type of seats that when I sat in them, my knees came up to my belly button.”

The old seats at the War Memorial had become vintage relics, thick with faded cushioning and challenging to climb out of, a particular concern to the opera crowd, which tends to skew older.

“Like those seats you saw when you went to your grandma’s,” said Jennifer E. Norris, the assistant managing director of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, who oversaw the project. “You know, when your grandma had her favorite chair and it sits a little too low, and was a little too worn.”

With uncushioned seat backs, the sound in the hall should be crisper. “Applause won’t die in the room, so you’ll have a great sense of enthusiasm around you,” Norris said. “It’s also possible the lady with the candy wrapper will annoy us more. I am hoping that peer pressure will remind her to unwrap her candy before the performance begins.”

The renovation began in 2013 with replacement of seats on the box level, and it includes 12 bariatric seats, designed to hold weights of up to 300 pounds, that will be 28 inches wide, as well as 38 spaces for wheelchairs, an increase of six from before the renovation. The project was funded by a ticket fee ranging from $1 to $3.

The new seats were designed by Ducharme Seating of Montreal, which also installed seats at the renovated David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, as well as halls in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Toronto. The historical nature of the beaux-arts building near San Francisco City Hall — it opened in 1932 — and the exacting demands of its high-end opera house and ballet made this project particularly complicated.

“This is the most extensive design we have ever done on a seat,” said Eric Rocheleau, the president of Ducharme Seating. “The opera houses are always the most stringent customers.”

Germain-Gordon said that theaters probably have little choice but to invest this kind of money as the world slowly returns to normal after the pandemic. “People can have in their home a beautiful media room,” she said. “Back in the olden days, if you wanted to see something you had to go see it. Nobody had TVs the size of movie screens, or La-Z-Boys. But people are investing in their comfort and they want to see it when they go out.”

Bhat, the tech executive, said anything would be better than the seats he had suffered over 25 years of long nights at the opera.

“They were creaky,” he said. “The upholstery would be fraying. So if you’re sitting in an opera in less than comfortable seats, something that’s going on for four and a half hours, or the first act of ‘Götterdämmerung,’ which is like 90 minutes long — it’s torture.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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