(Providence Business News, By Emily Gowdey-Backus)
With more than 30 years of leadership experience in the arts, Brenda S. Nienhouse, executive director of the Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center, came to Newport from Spokane, Wash., to advance Newport’s historic Opera House Theater restoration project.
In Spokane, she led the national award-winning restoration of Spokane’s 1,700-seat Fox Theater and served for 10 years as executive director of the theater and the Spokane Symphony. She has worked with many of the country’s major orchestras, including the St. Louis Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. While in Rochester, N.Y., she also managed the Finger Lakes Music Festival and oversaw second-phase construction of a 10,000-capacity outdoor performing arts center in Canandaigua, N.Y.
PBN: I understand there were multiple milestones reached this summer in the renovation of the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center, what were they and where does this leave the expected completion date of the project?
NIENHOUSE: After major steel structural installations, our building team has been working on the theater’s infrastructure, including laying the foundation for the expanded main stage; re-raking the second- and third-floor balcony seating to achieve optimal sight lines; and installing a four-story elevator shaft that extends from the ground floor lobby to the rooftop terrace gardens and conservatory. As we bring this historic theater into the future, we are modernizing systems and features, including ADA accessibility, safety and first-class amenities. We look forward to opening in 2018 in our 150th anniversary year.
PBN: How has the community reacted to the progress made in the renovation this summer and have you seen more philanthropy as the end date nears?
NIENHOUSE: The excitement is building. Every day I hear from someone new in the community who is thrilled about this project; the community support has been overwhelming and gratifying. The state made a $4.2 million commitment to kick off the renovation and we now have over 650 individual donors – and counting – supporting us. We cannot do it alone and we are so grateful the community has rallied behind this project. Of course, we are continuing to fundraise to get to the finish line. Every gift matters.
PBN: Why was it more important to the association to work with what already existed than to tear down a historic building and start from scratch?
NIENHOUSE: Newport is renowned for its history. We’re doing our part to preserve this architectural treasure and create a lasting institution. The building is stunning – a gem of a bygone era, one of the oldest theaters in the country and the oldest in Rhode Island. It will be breathtaking once restored, an exceptional space to experience live performances.
PBN: How has the renovation of the theater acted as an economic driver for the area?
NIENHOUSE: We’re investing in the community start to finish and Washington Square is already buzzing a little louder now we’re renovating. Construction alone is injecting $15 million into the community, in combined direct and indirect economic impact, supporting at least 181 jobs. Our general contractor, Jim Farrar, and our lead architect, Mohamad Farzan, are not only top in Newport but nationwide and we’re very glad to have them. The local impact will only continue to grow as we see the multiplier effect this project has.
PBN: What role do you hope the 700-seat restored theater will play in the community once construction has concluded?
NIENHOUSE: The Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center will be a world-class performing arts destination, a magnificent home for all the wonderful performing arts organizations, a hub for community, a place for collaboration and a transformative space for empowerment, education and learning. We’re not just restoring architectural heritage or establishing a venue with year-round live performances; it’s about the opportunities and the experiences people will have here. We look forward to serving as a dynamic presence locally that is a beacon of culture, an anchor in the community, an economic driver and an educational resource for generations to come.
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