Inteview with Brenda Nienhouse | Opera House executive director
It was the cultural heart of Washington Square when it opened in 1867. Now a $14.6 million project is restoring the Opera House back to its glory days. Rhode Island voters approved a bond referendum in 2014 that earmarked $4.2 million for the project, and the fundraising efforts have nearly matched that amount. Approaching the halfway mark, Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center Executive Director Brenda Nienhouse is excited to share plans for reopening the historic building in December 2017 in time for its 150th anniversary. Hired last July, the Michigan native has 30 years of leadership experience in arts and performance management and wisdom recently garnered from running a $30 million capital campaign to revitalize the Fox Theatre in Spokane, Washington.
What are you working on now?
We’re in pre-construction right now and hopefully we’ll break ground and begin construction in the spring. And continuing to raise funds and planning what will be in the theater once it’s open. The board has brought on a strong building committee and team, including local architect Mohamad Farzan and contractor Jim Farrar, that have been developing construction plans for the restoration. They’ve already redone the façade.
What types of performances do you have in mind?
A broad range, from music — classical, popular, jazz, folk, music of all genres — theater, dance, youth and family programming, speakers. So live and year-round.
What do you love about the Opera House and Performing Arts Center building?
It’s an amazing space. The proscenium, which is the arch that frames the stage, is magnificent! If you look up from the main floor or the balcony, you can just imagine past and future performances.
What do most people not know about the historical relevance of the theater?
A lot of people remember it as a movie house or they think it was only opera performed there. But in reality it has a long history of a range of performances of all art forms. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe spoke there as well as Duke Ellington and other legends performed.
How will the new Opera House pick up where it left off?
It was a cultural anchor. The cultural sector really matters to Newport: It’s an important part of what makes this community unique and what is going to propel it forward. The Opera House has potential to broaden the support for the cultural sector and really bring life to Washington Square. We’re planning on partnering with the many wonderful cultural organizations here as well as present artists and performers from all over the country, bringing the “best of” to Newport.
What challenges did you face while revitalizing the historic Fox Theatre in Spokane, Washington, and how will these compare to your goals for the Opera House?
There are a lot of similarities. In Spokane, we partnered with U.S. Bank for federal New Markets and Historic Tax Credits, which helped finance the building. When you get historic tax credits, the restoration has to be to national park standards. We had some beautiful murals and paintings in the interior of the Fox, including the ceiling. To modernize the building and make sure the airflow was silent and the acoustics were excellent, we had to put very large ducts into the space between the roof and the ceiling. We had to figure out how we were going to support this painted ceiling without damaging it while we cut all of the wires and put in these ducts that were the size of Greyhound buses. It was pretty complicated. Making sure we preserved all of the original painting and design was critical to the success of the project.
Were you successful?
It’s a beautiful space that won a National Preservation Award. Here, we are also applying for historic tax credits. We’re being very careful to make sure that we protect the historic elements of the Opera House as we bring it back to life. In Spokane, all the pieces came together, and the whole was so much better than we ever could have dreamed. It was magical. And that’s what’s going to happen here!
How else will this revitalization benefit the Newport community?
We saw in Spokane, in the area around the theater, restaurants, galleries, hotels, apartment buildings, etc., opened, so it had a really significant economic impact. Broadway is an area where there is wonderful growth and great restaurants. We will be supporting that growth and hopefully seeing more around Washington Square, as well. We also hope to connect with youth organizations as a place for youth orchestras to perform and for there to be creative discovery.
What do you mean?
We have some educational space in the building where people can come together, plan, collaborate and think outside the box: For young people maybe to see a touring production of a children’s theater and possibly have a masters class with the people who are doing it or a lesson or for some of our artists to connect with others around the country through technology. These are just potential ideas, but we want to be a place for innovation. It could be a performance arts piece where a visual artist works with theatrical art or a drama. Then also community meetings and weddings.
What other innovations do you have planned for the facility itself?
Behind the mansard roof, which is the top level, we’re planning to build a rooftop garden and atrium. It’ll be partially covered, partially open, with a small stage, so it’ll be a place where people can go up for a drink either before or after a performance — possibly with a jazz group playing — and look out over the water. Really cool!
When did you fall in love with performing arts?
When I was young I went to Interlochen, a music camp in Northern Michigan that was international in scope but set in the most beautiful place between two lakes, with virgin pines. To be in the middle of the beauty of nature and the creation of beauty through music and dance and theater was very pivotal to my formation as a person.
What led you this type of leadership role?
I ended up going into the Peace Corps in between undergrad and masters [at the University of Michigan]. I was sent to Nicaragua. My job was to play with the national symphony and teach in the conservatory, but when I arrived neither existed. So I ended up helping them develop interest and raise the funds to get the orchestra going again and to start the conservatory. I decided at that point that I was not just interested in the arts, but also the behind-the-scenes administration of it.
How can people help?
We’re still in the fundraising phase, so support is critical. We’re also doing a series of soirées — in-home performances by artists that represent the range of performances that will be taking place once we reopen. So if you are interested in hosting or attending, let us know. We had our first in December with a harpist from the Rhode Island Philharmonic. We’re trying to do them monthly until we open. It’s great because usually there’s a chance to connect with the artist, so it brings the art form to a personal level.
To learn more and support the campaign to restore this local gem, visit operahousetheaternewportri.org