Center of attention

Times Staff Writer

AFTER a wait of nearly 15 years, students at Cal State Fullerton and the arts-loving community of north Orange County can boast of a sparkling new Performing Arts Center. The attractive $48.5-million campus-based facility, designed by Pfeiffer Partners, formerly Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates who created the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, opened with a dedication ceremony Friday morning, a gala dinner and concert Saturday, and various dance and theater events Sunday.

The 100,000-plus-square-foot center houses the 800-seat Vaughncille Joseph Meng Concert Hall, the 250-seat thrust-stage Young Theatre, the 150-seat black-box Hallberg Theatre and the 50-seat McGarvey Family Dance Studio. There are also rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, recording and dance studios, costume and scene shops, and faculty offices and classrooms.

The project began in 1993, but funding was delayed until 2000 when a state bond passed that provided $43 million for construction. The remainder was raised from private sources, including $2 million from Vaughncille Joseph Meng, a longtime Fullerton supporter of the university.

"The plans changed drastically over the years -- and, I think, for the better," University President Milton A. Gordon said last week. "Some of the early performing arts halls were built on the systemwide concept of having 1,200 seats. We decided to build four different arts-dedicated halls. If you count up the seats in all four halls, you end up with [about] 1,200 seats."

Metropolitan Opera star Deborah Voigt was the headliner of the Saturday concert. The dramatic soprano, who recently lost about 120 pounds as a result of gastric bypass surgery, attended the university in the 1980s but left just short of a bachelor's degree to attend San Francisco Opera's Merola program in 1985. Awards and fame soon followed.

Voigt made a grand entrance on a small platform carried by four bare-chested hunks. "My favorite part of the show is over," she joked as the guys left.

Appropriately enough, Voigt sang Elisabeth's ecstatic greeting to the Hall of Song ("Dich, teure halle") from Wagner's "Tannhauser" as her first selection. Her only other opera aria was Tosca's "Vissi d'arte." Otherwise, she sang Broadway songs including "Till There Was You" and "My White Knight" (both from "The Music Man"), "In a Very Unusual Way" ("Nine"), "Ice Cream" ("She Loves Me"), plus a waltz medley drawn from several shows. Her single encore was Janis Ian's "Stars."

Although her voice filled the hall, judgments about the acoustics have to be tentative because, naturally, the hall is still being tuned. Acoustician Mark Rothermel has provided adjustable settings for overhead and side curtains and for the movable canopy above the stage, and all of these will be modified over the year.

Voigt and the University Symphony, conducted by Kimo Furumoto, were not amplified. But oddly, all the other singers, the "Friends of Deborah" (five university grads), the Preeminents (six current music and theater students), and emcee Marc Cherry, were miked.

That decision, which would not seem necessary in such a small, vividly alive and embracing hall, threw off balances, displaced the source of the sound to the speakers above the stage, and otherwise changed the vocal size and color of the other soloists, who varied in training from opera to Broadway styles.

Definitely not opera-trained was Cherry, a classmate of Voigt's and creator and executive producer of the ABC television series "Desperate Housewives," who jokingly told the ushers to lock the doors and snipers to take their places before he sang Frank Loesser's "Brotherhood of Man" with the Preeminents.

Cherry got off a lot of great one-liners, but his best quip was this: "Everything I learned about sordid, suburban material, I learned here in Fullerton."

The Friends of Deborah -- Aram Barsamian, Roger Castellano, Rafael Duran, Mark Garcia and Tyler Thompson -- each had solos as well as ensemble numbers such as the title song of Scott Barnes and Byron Nease's "Leading Men Don't Dance" and "Some Enchanted Evening" from "South Pacific."

The Triada Guitar Trio (brothers Nikola, Petar and Vasil Chekardzhikov) provided accompaniment for Duran's singing "Granada."

Even though fine-tuning lies ahead, there's no doubt that the new center will be a glamorous, inspiring setting for the university's performing arts students and a magnet for the community as different professional artists and organizations, such as the Pacific Symphony and percussionist Evelyn Glennie, take the Meng Concert Hall stage.

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