Winspear Opera House - Classic Composition: Operatic Triumph for Studio’s Artistry

By Zachary J. Hoeppner
Published in Durability + Design

The Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House combines classical, European intuition with modern architectural innovation. The auditorium's world-class acoustics, sight lines and architecture provide a state-of-the-art performance space for The Dallas Opera, Texas Ballet Theater, Broadway productions, and the country's performing arts.

An interior view of the completed Winspear Opera House, Dallas.

Photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

This innovative performance space plays a major role within the AT&T Performing Arts Center, a cultural hub in the Arts District of downtown Dallas. Designed and decorated to be the epitome of modern opera houses, the Winspear has become a portrait of decorative discovery.

The Winspear's interior architecture is designed as a 21st-century interpretation of the pinched-horseshoe design found in many vintage European opera houses, including the famed Paris Opera House. The balcony fronts are designed to alter acoustic space with an underlying intonation of decorative opulence.

Before a foundation was poured, Doug Curtis, the AT&T PAC's senior vice president and general manager, enlisted Conrad Schmitt Studios to design and develop gilding samples and, ultimately, to gild the elegant lines of the 4,200-square-foot balcony façade on five separate levels (three tiers, the box level and the orchestra level).

Review of finish options

Conrad Schmitt Studios worked in collaboration with the world-renowned, London-based architects Foster + Partners to develop an extensive series of decorative samples. The architects favored exploring a variety of finish motifs.

A Conrad Schmitt Studios artisan applies a decorative sample book-ended by white gold, fine-tuning the sample process with various materials.

Photo: Conrad Schmitt Studios

Initial gilding on cardboard sample panels combined various tones of base paint with a random flecking of gold leaf. The unique curvature, subtle convex profile and wavelike structural relief of the balcony façade required sampling to move beyond basic panels. A series of samples applied directly to small sections of the balcony façade followed. Accurate illustrations of the desired finish resulted.

An artist worked at the Conrad Schmitt studio headquarters in New Berlin, Wis., to create the distressed finish Foster + Partners envisioned. The studio received five mock-up panels to prime, base paint and gild in various colors with 23¾-karat gold leaf. From a smooth gradient, to random flecks, to a streaky finish, the focus remained on creating a natural timeworn distress.

Sampling and approval went back and forth between Foster + Partners and Conrad Schmitt for several weeks. Early samples drew influence from an antiquated finish on a picture frame, combining a distressed foundation with the addition of gilded highlights. The finish required applying a flawless gradient of black and red with a random splash of gold leaf, avoiding any hint of pattern. "It is a meticulous process requiring numerous layers," said Conrad Schmitt President B. Gunar Gruenke.

A 12kt white gold on a custom sample panel before final approval.

Photo: Conrad Schmitt Studios

Challenges and approaches to the task


The sample process ran into its share of challenges. In January 2010, Conrad Schmitt sent an artist to create samples on a full-size balcony box temporarily installed on-site in the basement of a parking garage. An enclosure protected the sample panel from dust and fog.

The pattern had to exhibit a very even transformation from dark to light. Conrad Schmitt Studios created dozens of samples to achieve the final approved color and texture.

The complex series of samples began with diverse finishes ranging from solid paint to a potpourri of painted layers and gilding. Several full-size samples illustrated the diverse potential within the opera house. One required spraying a gray primer and red base coat, then applying a second shadow with directional spray and tone. Size was applied with a dry brush and sponge roller and was gilded in 17kt moon gold highlights. The process was duplicated using a satin red in place of the matte finish. Additional samples created a smooth gradient transition from red to black with gilded highlights.

With sampling under way for months, a departure from the original direction developed when James McGrath of Foster + Partners flew in to review the completed mock-up panels. After examining gold-leaf color samples, it became obvious to all involved that 12kt white gold leaf (51% gold and 49% silver) imported from Italy by Conrad Schmitt would beautifully complement the theater's decorative scheme.

"The surfaces have such an elegant, linear wave that any decorative finish other than simply gold was distracting from the architecture," Gruenke said. "With their expansive presence, the look and feel of this opera house hinged on the finished surface of the balcony façade."

James McGrath sent the sample of white gold to Spencer de Gray at Foster + Partners' headquarters. He approved the color. The architects immediately requested half the sample box be gilded in solid white gold. When de Gray and his team flew in and stood face to face with the glowing white gold panel, it was a unanimous decision.

Execution of preparation and gilding

Riding the momentum of this key discovery, a team of six artists began preparation for gilding of the Opera House. Artists pored over the 4,200 square feet of panels on the three balcony tiers, along with the box and orchestra levels, inspecting them for damage. Each balcony front was repaired, primed, sanded, and painted.

The opera house is part of the AT&T Performance Arts Center in Dallas.

AT&T Performing Arts Center

The gilding process involved wiping each façade with a cloth, followed by treatment with a tack rag to remove additional debris or dust. After applying oil-based size followed by an overnight cure, artists returned in the morning to gild, burnish, and seal the façades with a protective lacquer coating. It was imperative that exposed size be gilded and covered before it could be compromised by the dust and debris clouding the open construction site.

Cold weather and high humidity within the building narrowed the standard window to apply gold leaf. With every subcontractor nearing deadlines and working around each other to provide quality work in a timely manner, from top level management to all the trades working on site, everyone pulled together. The general contractor provided everything needed to get the job done.

The 12kt white gold leaf (51% gold & 49% silver) establishes vivid dynamics within the Opera House. For the ceiling and proscenium arch, Conrad Schmitt formulated a custom mix of gold paint to match the prolific white gold leaf. Light and sound play off the shimmering balcony waves that seem to hug each terrace. The balcony fronts absorb and reflect sound waves to create a state of the art acoustic space. The vibrant and changing colors of a massive chandelier reflect off the gilded balcony fronts, uniting decoration and architecture.

About the author

Zachary J. Hoeppner is Conrad Schmitt Studios' lead copywriter. He conducts research on architects, artists and techniques, particularly in liturgical design and in the support of historic-restoration projects. He is a graduate of the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin and brings a strong background in journalism and media relations to his work with Conrad Schmitt.

Published in: Durability + Design ©2010 Technology Publishing Company



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