The fascinating story of acoustics in Morsani Hall
Next time you take in a concert or opera in Morsani Hall, also take in the acoustical secrets that hide in plain sight–the doors, the interior chambers between the lobby and the hall, and the cavity at the top of the theater. All of them work in their own orchestra of acoustic perfection that makes an evening in Morsani Hall one of unforgettable, incredible sound.
Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Straz Center, and you will find design marvels camouflaged as everyday objects: a seat back, a bare floor, a slightly-discolored seam separating Morsani Hall from Ferguson Hall.
These seemingly insignificant – or merely decorative – details belie the meticulous planning that started the moment a world-class performing arts center became a reality for Tampa.
“The people involved in conceiving the Straz Center wanted the best,” says Mike Chamoun, director of production services and veteran of The Straz since the day it opened. “They were very clear in their desire to deliver the very best performing arts center possible. So, they got the best.”
In the case of acoustical design, the best was Artec Industries, led by famed acoustician Russell Johnson, whose inspiring creativity forged some of the world’s most celebrated modern performing arts venues. Johnson, who died at 83 in 2007, joined the original team of planners and designers tasked with creating a state-of-the-art modern facility for Tampa.
Johnson and the Artec team planned the sound capabilities of the mainstage concert hall around the classic European design, knowing that the hall would host grand opera and the multi-tonal needs of full symphony orchestras. They included a foam “acoustical seam” to be incorporated in the foundation of the building and running up through the walls between Morsani and Ferguson so that sound would absorb in the foam seam before leaking into the other concert hall, contaminating the performances. This detail explains why audiences at the Carolina Chocolate Drops show in Ferguson Hall cannot hear the thunderous applause of the audience next door in Morsani at the end of the Itzhak Perlman concert.
“Even down to the bricks,” Chamoun adds. “Construction sand was poured into the three holes of every single brick laid to make this hall.” The sand prevents sound from circling inside the holes and dissipating. In fact, the driving concept was to hold the energy of the sound inside the hall, engulfing audiences inside the sound, giving them the sensation of sitting with the musicians or the musicians sitting among them.
“The whole room is the orchestra. There is no typical ‘shell’ on stage that has to be moved, as you find with most multi-purpose halls. The acoustical shell is the hall itself,” Chamoun says. “There is no carpeting to dampen the sound. The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood. As you move up the tiers, the seat backs get taller to capture sound properly and keep patrons in the proper posture for best listening capability.”
The crowning glory in Morsani Hall usually goes unnoticed by audiences: the 18-panel acoustical canopy, or cloud, suspended over the audiences’ heads. The panels adjust to fine-tune the hall for the specific performance: opera has different acoustic needs than a cellist and accompanist or a Broadway show. “The canopy changes the sound image,” says Chamoun. “The entire design creates an incredible sound feeling that is rarely matched anywhere else in the world.”
In the professional performing arts world, the acoustical purity of Morsani Hall garnered a reputation that precedes it. “We’re one of the largest theaters in the country,” Chamoun says, “and we hear all the time about how coming to perform here is like going on vacation. It’s a luxury hall but it’s accessible to everyone. The very best seats for music are in the third tier, that’s where the best sound collects thanks to these acoustics.”