When it comes to opera, Dan and Nancy Gamber of the District are fans in the serious, face-painting and tailgating sense of the word, if such practices existed for opera. Their career in the Foreign Service has taken them around the world and inside the planet’s most famous opera houses in Sydney, London, and Paris. They have been season ticket holders with the Washington National Opera going back to the 1980s, when it was called the Washington Opera, and again since returning to the United States in 2001.
So the Gambers were perplexed when they received their latest subscription renewal notice from the WNO, informing them that the box seats that they had held for over a decade “include a mandatory wheelchair location,” and that they would lose those seats if they could not show that one of them used a wheelchair (neither of them do). In a follow-up call with the WNO subscription office, they were told this designation followed the Kennedy Center’s policies of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Gambers protested that the ADA does not require that any particular seats in any section be reserved for wheelchair-bound patrons, only equal access—-a bar the Kennedy Center already surpasses admirably, with wheelchair ramps throughout, accessible seating, and curb-to-seat service. In a letter to Kennedy Center management, they asked: “Why, when the performing arts in general are having funding problems, are you evicting holders of the most expensive seats in the house?”
As it turns out, this policy goes back three years, to the 2010 release of the latest ADA standards and regulations by the Department of Justice. These require that accessible seating “be dispersed and integrated in all areas and be available at all prices,” and that venues such as the Kennedy Center establish “a process that prevents the automatic reassignment of the accessible seating to patrons who do not need them” says Kennedy Center Press Office Vice President John Dow. According to ADA stipulations, the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, which seats 2,200, must hold a minimum of 38 seats for wheelchair-bound patrons and their companions. The Gambers’ box, Dow says, was slightly larger than the ones next to it, so was chosen as one of the wheelchair-reserved spots.
According to Dow, the changes affect about 40 Kennedy Center patrons, all of whom will be provided “comparable or upgraded locations”—-though the Gambers note they were not told where those new seats would be located when they were asked to renew, and they’re still waiting to find out.
If the seating policy has been in effect this whole time, neither the WNO nor the Kennedy Center, which merged in 2011, have done much to get the word out. Told they had been occupying wheelchair-reserved seats for three years, Dan Gamber says “it is news to me and my wife… The WNO definitely never made an issue of our seats” before sending the subscription notice this year.
For a venue with a sizable elderly clientele, being exceedingly wheelchair friendly isn’t just law-abiding or charitable, it’s good business. But annoying longtime subscribers in the process is probably not the wisest strategy for the Kennedy Center and the WNO, which has had trouble filling box seats in recent seasons, wheelchairs or otherwise.
Photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera