It is possible to learn more of the world by producing a single opera, or even conducting a single orchestral rehearsal, than by ten years reading in the Library of the British Museum. —George Bernard Shaw
One of the many lost moments that followed the COVID pandemic was the public opening of one of the world’s most important venues for opera and vocal music. In 2022 the Shepherd School of Music at Houston’s Rice University unveiled its state-of-the-art theater for teaching opera singers and offering performances of all kinds to the Houston public. Brockman Hall for Opera got a spirited local celebration, but many of its creators could not attend the opening—and thus one of Allan Greenberg’s finest buildings passed virtually unnoticed during a lengthy drought in the building industry worldwide.
Last month I was able to visit the building thanks to the Shepherd School’s Pippa Jarvis, Emily Wells and Mike Freese, who gave me a comprehensive tour. I have seldom felt so immersed in a visual and acoustic performance space, despite decades of designing for and performing in concert halls and theaters. Moreover, having taught architecture at Rice from 1981 to 1985, I was impressed by the university’s foresight in choosing Greenberg to design one of the school’s most important buildings, a fitting bookend to Ralph Adams Cram’s Lovett Hall at the opposite end the campus.
I have performed in, among many other venues across the globe, New York’s Carnegie Hall, London’s St. Martin in the Fields, Vienna’s Konzerthaus, Milan Cathedral, and Yale’s Woolsey Hall. As both a choral singer and a soloist I have tested the acoustics of countless spaces—I know a great hall from a good one. Brockman is remarkable both as a soundscape and as a visual setting for opera. Its architects, Greenberg and Thomas Noble, were guided from the inception by acousticians led by Scott Pfeiffer of Threshold Acoustics in Chicago. Before approaching the design the team toured comparable opera houses in Europe such as the Royal Opera Theatre at Versailles and the Estates Theatre in Prague. At just 600 seats, the auditorium was smaller and more potentially reverberant than most contemporary operatic halls. Director of Operations Freese suggested that the challenges presented were met using a number of adjustable sound-dampening elements, as well as moveable shells that could focus the sound under different performing conditions. He underlined the need for an acoustic that would support young voices that had not yet matured to produce the sound required in major opera companies.
Looking outward from the proscenium, I asked Freese if the school had been reluctant to use a traditional horseshoe auditorium when virtually all modern houses chose abstract volumes or rectangular halls. Knowing that Greenberg found the historic theaters compelling, I was surprised at his frank appraisal of the virtues of the older model: “No, we were able to accommodate our audience without using opera boxes, while still getting the look and feel of a classical theater.” Indeed, sitting in both of the upper levels I found the sight lines perfect and the acoustics just as pleasing as in the orchestra seats. Houston’s three modern performing venues–Jones Hall (symphonic music), the Wortham Theatre (Houston Grand Opera) and the Alley Theatre (repertory theater)–are less than optimal for their stated functions, so this was a pleasant surprise. Surveying the national scene, even top music schools such as those at Juilliard and Indiana University can’t match the new facilities at Shepherd.
Rice did not have a music school until the 1970s, and the curriculum was focused on orchestral music until the 1990s, when the school began admitting vocal students. Senior Assistant Dean Emily Wells related the progress of the opera department, which now has about eight teaching faculty, from its inception until today: “In only two decades the program has risen to the upper echelon to attract students that might otherwise attend Juilliard or Curtis, our peer institutions.” The program has far exceeded expectations—hence the need for a dedicated performance hall. When the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust offered a substantial sum to build a building the school accepted the gift and went to work. Former dean and current professor Robert Yekovich spearheaded the project over more than a decade, building community support and raising funds for specific spaces and amenities.
While Greenberg and his staff were designing the facility, they found inspiration in the Prague’s Estates Theatre—the house that premiered Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “I wanted the same blue-green color for the hall’s interior,” Greenberg told me, “but Rice couldn’t afford the extensive gilded surfaces or a large chandelier.” The Lucian & Nancy Morrison Theater is indeed cooler and less classically detailed than its precedents, particularly as the back walls recede in the upper levels (the blue color is graduated from darker to lighter shades). Each balcony has molded decoration, also varying from level to level, though not visually consistent in my estimation. The ceiling volumes are visually arresting, with a gilded medallion at the center and circular apertures at each cardinal axis. Many of the plaster cutouts are designed to allow for lighting and acoustic modifications, so the hall has a transparent and open feeling.
Greenberg had designed one of Rice’s most acclaimed recent buildings, the Humanities Building, completed in 2000. When an arrangement with another architect fell through Rice asked Greenberg to head the design team for the new music school building. His staff were joined by Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants to create a modern performance facility with adequate back of house technologies and a fully automated fly tower. A wing on the left of the auditorium houses classrooms, lecture halls and practice rooms for the music school. Two large rehearsal rooms and a scene shop are on the right side of the hall.
Ralph Adams Cram’s template for Rice buildings has proved durable and inspiring over more than a century, and Greenberg was intimately familiar with the brick and limestone details after doing the Humanities Building. He also had his talented daughter, Ruth, as a collaborator: she provided brilliantly colored tiles for both buildings. Most importantly, he has proved over the decades to be the most visually inventive and daring of all traditional architects during the revival that began in the mid-1970s. As a leader in that revival, Greenberg set the standards for many younger architects practicing today, including Michael Imber and Curtis & Windham in Texas. Alas, this was to be his last major work, as he retired in 2021 from practice in New York and Washington.
Though very few of Rice’s buildings are seen in the round, the architects of Brockman Hall for Opera were confronted with the problem of designing four exposed facades in a theater that wanted only one. The entrance front, oriented directly on axis with Ricardo Bofill’s Alice Pratt Brown music building, is well scaled for both pedestrians and casual viewers. In order to signal that the entrance hall is vaulted, there are five arched windows at the upper level and three aedicular entrances at ground level. Most of the ornament follows Cram’s precedents in using molded limestone and Texas pink brick—Greenberg’s typical clever brick diaper patterns and colored tile accents distinguish this building from most others on campus. The message, however, is that the building fits perfectly into the campus vernacular, much more so than its nearest neighbor.
The other facades are restrained, with an arcade on the south side to indicate classrooms as in other campus classroom buildings. As he does at the Humanities Building, Greenberg uses towers to break up the mass and enliven the upper levels. Those trained to understand classical syntax and ornament will notice witty formal juxtapositions in every surface and opening. This is a sophisticated composition, far more articulate than anything on the interior. One wishes there were a larger budget so that the wonderful entrance hall and main auditorium might have benefitted from Greenberg’s genius with ornament and color.
Surveying Greenberg’s long career, the buildings at Rice are a high point among his academic works at Delaware, Princeton, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia. As I have observed elsewhere on this site, campuses that maintained their strong traditions over decades, following original campus plans by early 20th century masters, have benefitted from such continuity with the past. It is a pity that Greenberg was not able to build at Yale, Harvard, or Notre Dame, to name other universities intent on stewarding their architectural heritage. No architect of his generation has contributed more to the furtherance of classical and traditional architecture.
Rice’s magnificent opera house and multi-purpose venue now joins the likes of La Scala, the Teatro San Carlo, the Bordeaux Opera, Prague’s Estates Theatre, and the great Garnier building in Paris as a true setting for what George Bernard Shaw saw as the highest form of art created by humankind. More importantly, students trained to sing at the Shepherd School will enjoy the kind of visual and auditory splendor that could only occur at one of these landmarks of architecture and theater design.
Featured image: Lucian & Nancy Morrison Theater, view from the stage. Courtesy of Shepherd School of Music, Rice University.