Concert-goer, beware: Those expensive seats might stink

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Concert-goer, beware: Those expensive seats might stink

Lee Hyun-joo is caught between literally hundreds of options. It’s had her stumped for over 10 minutes now, leaving her staring at a computer screen and fumbling with a mouse. Her dilemma: She needs to choose a seat to reserve for the production of Matthew Bourne’s musical “Edward Scissorhands,” which will be staged in Seoul in July.
“Whenever I make a reservation for a seat on the Internet, I always wonder which seat is really the best among those in the same section,” said Ms. Lee, 26.
She knows, as all theater-goers do, that not all seats are equal. How unequal seats of an equal price are, however, is something she does not know.
The problem is that sound is a fickle thing. Something that sounds good at one time in one place will sound awful ― or barely sound at all ― elsewhere. A theater’s shape and even the genre of music can result in very different acoustics. A seat that offers a great view and surround-sound experience may leave a fan disappointed next time around.
According to a representative from a production company, the royalties, production costs and even genre of a play have important roles in deciding seat categories as well as ticket prices, meaning that the number of expensive seats increases if the costs are high and the show has a shorter run. This can result in astronomical prices: A VIP seat for a recent recital by Cecilia Bartoli, an Italian mezzo-soprano, at the Concert Hall of the Seoul Arts Center cost 330,000 won ($345), making it one of the most expensive performances Seoul has ever hosted.
It’s generally true that the more expensive the seat is, the better.
“I watched Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ twice in Seoul, once on the second floor and then on the first floor,” said Ms. Lee. “The impression was totally different. I wouldn’t have appreciated the show as much as I do now if I hadn’t seen it on the first floor. You know, on the first floor you could see the facial expressions and little movements and even hear the actors breathing.”
Or maybe she just thinks so.
“People think that they can hear better if they see better,” said Choi Joon-hyouk, the chief executive of RPG Korea Diffusor System. That subtle effect, besides the simple fact that everyone hears things differently, is one reason seats cannot be judged on price alone.
Seats next to walls are also problematic. For example, for the one-time recital of Bartoli at Seoul Arts Center, the seats furthest back in the B Block (one block away from the center to the left), were categorized as “R” (second only to VIP seats) and cost 275,000 won. But seats next to walls, especially seats in corners, have neither good views nor clear acoustics. Little sound reaches the viewer directly, while the reflected sound that does arrive is distorted. Those whose ears are particularly sensitive might actually hear the discrepancy between on-stage action and sound.
Front-row seats have other disadvantages. Sitting too close to the stage, it’s hard to catch all of the action and most of the sound comes from the wings, reflecting back behind the viewer. In order to fill out the sound, apron speakers are usually set up in front of the stage.
One example is the first row of the F-2 block, the central seats, at Olympic Hall in Olympic Park for the concert version of “Jekyll & Hyde,” which is in Seoul through Sunday. The seats are categorized as “VIP” and cost 165,000 won. Fans who bought the front-row tickets thought they were getting the best seats in the house because they would be able to see the actors so closely.
“The seats close to the stage at the Olympic Hall are not really good, acoustically,” said Lee Soo-yong, the main engineer at Way Audio. “In the venue, [seats] a bit closer to the stage from the center are good for the view and those a bit further from the stage from the center are good for the sound.”
Those upfront can also get more than they bargained for ― they can wind up smelling the actors, who were sweating under hot lights for hours. (The wife of an ambassador to Korea said that she was invited to an orchestra concert and given a front-row seat. It took her a little while, however, to realize the sweaty odor she was smelling was emanating from the director in front of her.)
How about the seats in the gray area between the two price categories? Usually, seats around the VIP section are classified as “R,” and cost as much as 50,000 won less. For example, seat No. 1 in row 8 in the middle block of a venue is “VIP,” and the seat just next to it with a little more space to the left is an “R.” It would take amazingly subtle ears to perceive a difference in sound quality between the two.
Then, what’s the criteria that defines, for example, row 6 as “VIP” and row 7 as “R”? There are actually no specific criteria, but for most multipurpose halls, it all comes down to looks over sound. “We usually categorize seats depending on how the specific production looks,” said Choi Jeong-hui, spokeswoman for the LG Arts Center (no relation with Mr. Choi). The venue, however, has luxury seats that are pricey even when there isn’t a VIP section: Those in the eight and ninth rows in the middle block on the first floor, and those in the first and second rows in the middle block on the second floor.
“The chairs have two armrests, providing more space to the customers,” Ms. Choi said. She added that the luxury seats were included in the initial hall design.
Multipurpose halls typically regulate acoustics by using microphones and speakers so as to provide every seat with decent acoustics. The key is reverberation. Different productions need different levels of reverberation. Dialogue, for example, is helped by short reverberations so that words don’t “overlap.” Music needs long reverberation to thicken the sound.
“Even for opera houses, the preferred reverberation time is different in Europe and in the United States,” Mr. Choi said. “In Italy, for instance, people try to understand the language. But in the States, the music is more important than the language because few people speak Italian, so the reverberation time is longer in the States than it is in Italy.”
Park In-seo, in charge of acoustics at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, has his own favorite spot: “Personally, I prefer the front, center seats on the second floor.” Third-floor seats are no good for vocal music, he added. “The human voice has its limits.”
What about Mr. Choi at RPG Korea? He said he likes the seats aside from the center and within 16 meters (17 yards) of the stage, though not too close, to enjoy classical music at the Seoul Arts Center, one of the best places in the city to hear live classical music.
But after all, the decision is up to Ms. Lee, who is still holding her credit card and wondering what to reserve.

by Park Sung-ha
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