(Newport Life Magazine, By Karen Carlo Ruhren)
Newport’s Beloved Opera House is Returning to Its Original Splendor
Imagine major music headliners, dance companies, classical jazz, folk groups, opera, live drama and comedians on stage—all a stone’s throw away. For Newporters, it’s not just a dream anymore.
As 2017 comes to an end, Newport’s beloved Opera House is poised for a splendid new beginning. Now, 150 years after it first opened on December 28, 1867, this iconic downtown landmark is nearing completion of a remarkable $18 million restoration. After several reincarnations during its lifetime, it will re-open its doors to the public and its stage to performers next year as the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center on Touro Street in Washington Square. “It’s a cultural gem,” says Brenda Nienhouse, executive director of the Opera House. “We are all so excited about the impact the theater will have on the vitality of our community. It will be transformational. The Opera House is going to be a hub for cultural arts in Newport.”
A sneak peak of the Opera House last fall revealed what’s happening now. The stage size has more than doubled. Once only 14-feet deep, the stage now reaches 30 feet, rising from the floor and then drops to below floor-level to serve as an orchestra pit when needed. Beneath the stage—which will have sprung flooring suitable for dancing—is a seven-foot-high tunnel allowing performers to move from stage right to stage left unnoticed by the audience.
Another notable work in progress is a brand new fourth floor, which features a rooftop garden and patio for events. This major new addition is the creative solution to expansion, despite a brick alley in the back of the building and retail stores on either side.
The 700-seat Opera House now includes an elevator shaft, ADA-accessible ramps and bathrooms and steel beam reinforcements for a second-floor lobby and additional office and rooftop space. The pitch of the balcony has been raised 10 degrees to ensure that every audience member has a clear line of sight to the stage. Still to come are a grand staircase and dressing rooms. Stenciled brocade, wooden lattice, detailed bird carvings along the walls and massive original chandeliers are being re-furbished. Wherever possible, original doors and molding are being salvaged and re-used.
No detail is being left undone, explains principal architect Mohamad Farzan of NewPort Architecture, who has been on the job since its inception in 2002. In order to receive historic preservation tax credit incentives, Farzan and his team follow National Park Service preservation guidelines. The same holds true for exterior renovation, where each brick has been replaced or restored after vinyl siding was carefully removed.
As a performance venue, the facility will be state of the art. Dominique Alfandre is thrilled. As executive director and board member of Island Moving Company, Alfandre has also been one of the leading voices behind the project. “Now we can call the Opera House our home theater when we are not performing at our signature non-traditional sites,” she says. “This kind of presence will be a huge community connection for us.”
But the big-picture benefit, in Alfandre’s mind, is not merely for her dance troupe. It is the overwhelming effect the Opera House will have on the entire city of Newport. With the Opera House expected to stimulate millions of dollars in economic activity, Alfandre is confident the project will be a boon. “There will be something for people of all ages to do in Newport by day and night and in all seasons, not just outdoors during the tourist season,” she says. “Restaurants and shops will be busy; pedestrians will be enjoying Washington Square. It’s going to be amazing.”
To date 665 donors have committed their support to the Opera House’s resurrection, and significant funding has come from state and federal tax credits, as well as $4.2 million from the Creative and Cultural Economy Bond, the largest state investment on Aquidneck Island. The Opera House has been able to match these funds dollar for dollar and is two-thirds of its way to its fundraising goal of $18 million, according to Nienhouse.
Bringing the Opera House back to life has not happened overnight. Since its grassroots beginnings when Bank Newport organized a community re-development committee to create a performing arts center in the 1990s, several dedicated believers have been part of the process every step of the way. They include Alison Vareika, now chairperson of the Opera House board of directors. “My initial attraction was that [the Opera House] was a national treasure that was n danger of being lost,” Vareika recalls. “So for me, it was a historic preservation quest.”
150 Years in the Making
· Shanahan’s Opera House, named for its original founder P.C. Shanahan, was inaugurated Saturday, December 28, 1867, with the lyric comedy Lucretia Borgia, performed by a Dramatic Company from the Howard Athenaeum of Boston.
· Over the next 50 years, the Opera House became a prominent destination for live theater, hosting some of the country’s most acclaimed actors and producers, including Oscar Hammerstein and the Shubert brothers.
· In 1917, local real estate mogul Patrick Horgan bought the Opera House, and his son, Harry Horgan ushered it into the new age of silent films and “talkies.” The movie palace showed motion pictures such as Ben Hur, along with a popular lineup of Fox and Warner Brothers films.
· Horgan affected a nearly complete rebuild in 1929, covering the brick building with white stucco, downsizing the two stages into one, and adding the latest theater lighting as well as a smoking lounge in the lobby, among many changes.
· A 1955 fire destroyed the mansard roof and the fourth floor, which is being reconstructed this year.
· The building operated as a multiplex movie theater until 2001 when Horgan sold it to the Opera House board for restoration into a 21st century performance space. The newly refurbished Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center will open in 2018, bringing year-round comedy, dance, theater, music and more.
Vareika, along with Alfandre and Farzan, was instrumental in shepherding the project from its start. Farzan recalls the “aha moment” that year when he, Vareika and Alfandre together with flashlights in hand, first saw the magnificent plaster proscenium—built in 1929—which had been covered with plywood since the 1970s, when the Opera House was converted for use as a triplex movie theater. “It was like uncovering an Egyptian tomb,” Farzan recalls. “The arch had been untouched by people and had escaped decades of damage from light and cigarette smoke. It was a far better find than we ever imagined. As a preservationist, that’s what you hoped for.”
Alfandre vividly remembers the moment, as well. “It’s ironic,” she says,”that the shabby wall actually preserved the beautiful proscenium.”
Still intact at the peak of the arch were the intertwined letters ‘O’ and ‘H’ surrounded by intricate plaster flower and leaf carvings. Samples of the remaining rose, gold, cream and bronze art noveau paint are being matched for restoration.
Buoyed by the discovery, a dedicated team of professionals and community volunteers moved the restoration plans forward. The Newport Performing Arts Center nonprofit organization purchased the building, the movie theater closed officially in 2011, and builders broke ground in 2016.
“A project like this couldn’t happen without team spirit and the right mindset,” Farzan says, citing the efforts of builders; structural and civil engineers; acoustic, mechanical and electrical specialists; and fire safety experts. The expertise of Christopher Buckley, a New York City-based theater designer, and general contractor Jim Farrar, have been critical.
Everyone on ‘team Opera House’ has their sights set on the long-term value of this restoration. “In five years I hope that we will have a reputation for presenting a great variety of first-rate, world-class entertainment that will appeal to a broad group of patrons,” says Vareika, “including young people and those who have been underserved.”
And Nienhouse’s wish is that the Opera House becomes “a theater creating memories for generations to come.” Alfandre adds, “Newport is world-class in every other way, why not a world-class performing arts center!”
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