An architect rendering for the Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University, Orange, Calif.

The countdown is now less than two months before the March 19 grand opening of the Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts on the campus of Chapman University in Orange, Calif. The new 1,044-seat venue will open in style with performances by opera legends Placido Domingo and Deborah Voigt.

“This venue has been a dream of our President Jim Doti and everyone at the university for many years,” said Mary Platt, director of communications and media relations of the 8,000-student campus. “We started talking about it maybe 15 or 20 years ago. The dream was to build a great performing arts center worthy of our students and our great faculty and would also be able to bring in touring performers from all over the world.”

The dream is set to soon become reality, and much of the credit goes to local philanthropist Paul Musco, who some seven years ago spearheaded a capital campaign to raise the funding for the venue. Musco, who is very involved with opera and sits on the board of the Los Angeles Opera, and his wife Marybelle led the charge that raised $85 million and paid in full for the venue. As the venue’s major donors, the couple has their names on the building.

Platt said the building was long overdue and replaces the on-campus Memorial Hall, a 1920s era building with pillars in front that is also part of the administration building.

“Memorial Hall is picturesque from the outside and it was a beautiful venue for 100 years but has no wing space and hardly any dressing room space,” Platt said. “It was really made for high school lectures and performances and did not have the capacity that was needed for a modern university performing arts college program. It seats about 1,000, so it is a fairly large auditorium but it just technologically did not meet the needs and acoustically is not the greatest.”

Platt said that the historical Memorial Hall will remain to be used as a lecture hall and for some performances.

“It is beautiful and we don’t want to tear it down,” she said. “With the new venue opening that will free up Memorial Hall to be used for more community events and there is always a need in the City of Orange for venues for city events and things like that.”

But it is the sparkling new Musco Center for the Arts that is drawing all the buzz. The state-of-the-art theater occupies 88,142 square feet and includes 16 box suites and a three-level lobby with box office.

“What’s great about the Musco Center, and what we put a lot of care and effort into, was making a beautiful performance space that doesn’t just feel like a room with a concert shell wedged into it,” said Michael Ferguson, Theatre Projects’ project manager for the Musco Center. “It’s not just a proscenium theatre we put a shell in; it’s a concert hall, where we can take the shell out.”

One interesting facet of the building’s design is that to be compliant with the ordinances of the city’s historical district much of the Musco Center is below ground level, with the orchestra pit literally a pit approximately 40 feet underground. The overall height from the orchestra pit to the top of the building is more than 90 feet, while the Aitken Arts Plaza is sloped down to the orchestra-level main entrance of the building.

“We had to solve that problem by building underground,” Platt said. “People on the street level are actually looking down into the park that leads down into the entrance. That was a creative way of getting around being in a historic district.”

As is common with any new venue, the possibility for welcoming new shows and performances grows exponentially

“This will be very attractive to touring shows,” Platt said. “The new venue will open up a lot of capabilities for us that we just did not have before.”

Everyone is pointing toward the high-ticket March 19 grand opening, while on April 2 the venue will host a community open house which is free to the public and will include continual performances on four stages inside and outside the center from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. and will conclude with a concert by the Pacific Symphony playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to show off the acoustics designed by the renowned Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics. There are already 20 events set for the months of April and May including student events and an arts and lecture series featuring Jeff Corwin from Animal Planet.

Other partners in the venture include architect Pfeiffer Partners, general contractor McCarthy Builders Companies, theater consultant Theatre Projects Consultants, project management ABACUS Project Management and audio/visual consultant Sonitus Consulting.

Platt said that the position for executive director is open, and that Richard Bryant of Front of House Services based in Madison, New Jersey is serving as interim ED. William Hall serves as dean and artistic director for the venue.

As the grand opening draws closer, the excitement continues building.

“When the initial excavation was made there was a lot of interest,” Platt said. “Then, when we had one of the largest cranes west of the Mississippi poking out from the middle as the building went up around it, that really got a lot of buzz in the town. Now that it has taken shape and the exterior is looking great and the landscaping is going in the students get excited when they walk by.

“The students keep hearing from Mr. Musco and Dean Hall that this is really all about them. They’re pretty excited about it. The students in the college of performing arts are really in the know and are super excited to get in there and actually be on that stage.”

Interviewed for this story: Mary Platt, (714) 628-7271; Michael Ferguson, (203) 299-0830