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Rice’s Shepherd School engages DS+R as architect for new opera theater

Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston has succeeded in securing the services of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), winner of the National Design Award, as architect for the school’s dedicated new opera theater, which is scheduled to open in 2018. Charles Renfro, a partner of the New York-based firm, will serve as lead architect, with theater design consultancy by Fisher Dachs Associates and acoustical guidance from Threshold Acoustics. Marking a major cultural coup for Houston, this dream team of collaborators was selected by means of a ten-month search, instigated on receipt of a substantial anonymous donation last June.

The new opera theater will seat around 600 and will include a large rehearsal hall. The grand scale of the project speaks to a resurgence of interest in the performing arts; to a predilection for contemporary design on university campuses; and to the aspirations of the Shepherd School, Rice University, and Houston itself, which is already home to one of the nation’s most innovative opera companies.

Calling the new building “a transformative addition to the opera program,” Shepherd School dean Robert Yekovich explains: “On completion of the new opera house, the campus entrance will be framed by performing arts buildings on both sides, serving as a potent symbol of Rice University’s continuing commitment to the arts and signifying the shift of the university perceptually from one based in sciences to one that’s based in arts and sciences.”

He continues: “Having a jewel box theater primarily for the performance of opera will add more luster to Houston’s impressive list of performance venues and provide another opportunity for Houstonians to immerse themselves in the city’s wide array of cultural offerings.”

Yekovich and the university count themselves fortunate to have engaged an innovative, conceptual architecture firm with a world-class portfolio. A New York-based interdisciplinary design studio that integrates architecture with the visual and performing arts, DS+R boasts such prominent projects as New York’s High Line, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Image and Sound; the redevelopment of New York’s Lincoln Center, which includes Alice Tully Hall, the Juilliard School, and the School of American Ballet; the forthcoming expansion of the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA); and Culture Shed, a new cultural anchor for New York’s west side. Blur, a pavilion built for the 2002 Swiss Expo, is widely acknowledged as an example of the firm’s longstanding commitment to bridging the worlds of performing arts and architecture. Among the studio’s many honors are a MacArthur “genius grant,” the Smithsonian’s National Design Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Brunner Prize, the AIA President’s Award, and the Centennial Medal of Honor from the American Academy in Rome.

The project’s lead architect, Charles Renfro, joined DS+R in 1997 and became partner in 2004. A native Houstonian, Shepherd School music major, and a graduate of the School of Architecture – where he also taught in 2006 – he described the commission as “a kind of triple homecoming.”

Renfro continued: “Beyond our ability to make a great academic building for the Shepherd School, I think we demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the site and its transformative potential for the Rice campus as a whole. The opera house will be a new gateway to the university and a highly visible piece of architecture that engages both students and the broader Houston public. It will be an iconic building that trains young voices and educates new audiences for generations to come.”


Theater design will be led by Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates, a New York-based theater planning and design firm with more than 40 years of experience in providing guidance to projects such as Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall, Radio City Music Hall, new opera houses in Toronto and St. Petersburg and multipurpose venues such as Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.


The Chicago-based firm Threshold Acoustics will provide acoustic direction under Scott Pfeiffer. Threshold has directed a number of large-scale projects, including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, the National Arts Center in Ottawa and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall.

Houston’s award-winning Linbeck Group will act as general contractor. Linbeck has overseen the construction of Rice’s McMurtry College, Brochstein Pavilion, and James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace, and other major projects that include Fort Worth’s Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in San Antonio, and the Winspear Opera House in Dallas.

Rice’s Design Subcommittee, made up of current and former members of the Board of Trustees, with guidance from Yekovich and Rice President David Leebron, drove the selection process. The pre-design phase is scheduled to launch in mid-April.

The Shepherd School’s Opera Department is a respected program that enrolls just 36 singers per school year, providing each student with specialized individual attention from the internationally renowned opera and voice faculty members. The department’s alumni have performed in leading performance venues throughout the U.S. and abroad. Grammy Award-winner Sasha Cooke (’04) has received praise from the New York Times for her performances in symphony, opera, chamber music, and recital, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Opéra National de Bordeaux, and the English National Opera, among many others. Michael Sumuel (’09) will perform with the Houston Grand Opera during the current season, besides making his debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His previous engagements have included the San Francisco Symphony and Dayton Opera. Other alumni have been selected for highly prestigious development programs at some of the country’s top opera houses. Jennifer Johnson Cano (’08) and Mary-Jane Lee (’10) are part of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, established to nurture the most talented young artists through training and performance opportunities. Brenton Ryan (’11) will be joining the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program with the Los Angeles Opera this fall, following his debut with the Houston Grand Opera. More information about the Shepherd School Opera Department is available here.

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,920 undergraduates and 2,567 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6.3 to 1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, which is just one of the reasons Rice has been ranked No. 1 for best quality of life multiple times by the Princeton Review and No. 2 for “best value” among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Click here, to read “what they’re saying about Rice.”



Glenn Petry

Director of Public Relations

21C Media Group

(212) 625-2038

[email protected]


Amy Hodges

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Office of Public Affairs, Rice University

(713) 348-6777

[email protected]


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© 21C Media Group, March 2014

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