Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

In 2007, Kansas City stunned the architectural world with the lauded Bloch Building expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and it has just offered up a repeat. Opening in September was the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, side-by-side, state-of-the-art performance venues—one for music, one for theater—along with a banquet hall, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie (Quebec Museum of Civilization) with theater designer Richard Pilbrow and acoustician Yasu Toyota, who both worked on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Located on a 13-acre site between downtown and the Crossroads District, the Kauffman Center will serve as home to three resident companies. The Kansas City Symphony will perform in the center’s 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall, while the Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera of Kansas City will share stage time in the 1,800-seat Muriel McBrien Kauffman Theatre, named for the woman who first envisioned the center in 1995. In addition to the resident companies, the center will present a varied season of performances by classical, pop and country artists, touring Broadway shows, comedians and more.

Like the aforementioned Bloch Building and the nearby Sprint Center, the Kauffman adds a bold jolt of modernism to Kansas City’s distinguished collection of architecture. From the north, the amazingly photogenic building presents itself as a series of vertical segments of a circle sheathed in stainless steel that ascend to a pair of crowns. On the south face, a roof descends from the crowns to meet an inclined glass wall that contains the expansive foyer, which serves both performance spaces and offers dramatic views to the south.

Kauffman Center President Jane Chu describes the vision of the center as the creation of “a community center of sorts, where people from all walks of life could gather to feel part of something larger than themselves. The performance halls would need to accommodate a broad and diverse range of performances. There would also need to be gathering spaces for banquets, parties and receptions. The design would need to be inviting. Moshe did a marvelous job of incorporating two prominent entrances—with doors opening from both the north and the south—and transparent windows that radiate openness.”

Visually striking from the outside, the building works its real magic inside. The oval-shaped Helzberg Hall, in which no seat is farther than 100 feet from the stage, features acoustics that can be customized for solo concerts, chamber music and full orchestra. Kansas City Symphony Executive Director Frank Byrne describes the facility as “the most beautiful modern concert hall I’ve ever seen. With all the wood that is integral to the design, it feels like you are inside of a musical instrument.” Part of that instrument, and the hall’s visual centerpiece, is a custom-designed, 5,548-pipe Casavant Frères pipe organ. Word of the concert hall has helped attract a galaxy of stars to the symphony’s 2011-2012 season, including Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Christoph von Dohnányi, Yefim Bronfman and Joshua Bell.

The Muriel McBrien Kauffman Theatre offers amenities to its two resident companies that their former home, the venerable but increasingly outdated Lyric Theatre, could never deliver, including a 5,000-square-foot stage, an orchestra pit that accommodates 95 musicians (the Lyric’s held 52), a 74-foot-tall fly tower, flexible proscenium opening and increased backstage facilities. As in the great opera houses of Europe, audiences are seated in a vineyard-style semicircle configuration, and for operas, a personal monitor is mounted on each seatback for translated supertitles. The extra stage and orchestrapit space empowers the Lyric Opera of Kansas City to mount operas it considered too big for the Lyric Theatre, including Wagner, Strauss and (part of the 2011-2012 season) “Turandot” and “Nixon in China.” Acoustics were of paramount concern for the theater. As Kansas City Ballet Artistic Director William Whitener puts it, “We have sounds we try to disguise, and opera has voices it tries to enhance. In terms of the orchestra pit, the needs are the same: crystal clear sound.” To celebrate the inaugural season in the Kauffman, Whitener has teamed up with composer Maury Yeston on the world premiere of “Tom Sawyer: a ballet in 3 acts,” which, according to their research, is the first full-length ballet by an American choreographer and an American composer based on a literary work by an American author.

Since all three resident companies were consulted early on in the design process, their specific needs were given high priority by the design team, and their collective satisfaction at the finished project reflects the care taken to accommodate their requests. Lyric Opera Artistic Director Ward Holmquist declares himself “elated” at the design. The ballet’s Whitener was particularly pleased at the size of the theater, “not to big and not too small ... a very beautifully designed facility.” The symphony’s Byrne “had extremely high expectations based on Mr. Toyota’s other projects and the success of those, notably the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and it’s not an exaggeration to say what we actually got exceeded our expectations.”

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, 816-994-7200. Consult the center’s website, www.kauffmancenter.org, for tickets to all performances, links to the resident companies’ websites and information on tours, or call the box office at 816-994-7222.

About the author