On 150th Anniversary, Newport Opera House Celebrates a Rebirth

(The Providence Journal, By Andy Smith)

Gathering marks restoration, revival of historic theater, which got its start on Thursday, Dec. 28, 1867

NEWPORT — It was on Thursday, Dec. 28, 1867, that the Newport Opera House Theater held its very first performances. Mrs. Farren and her dramatic company from Boston presented — for one night only — the drama “Lucrezia Borgia, or The Poisoner.” The evening also included the farce “Our Country Cousin.”

So on Thursday night the Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center, which is undertaking an $18 million restoration of the historic theater, held a celebration in Newport to mark the 150th anniversary.

“We wanted to do something special to mark the exact night,” said Alison Vareika, board chair of the Newport Opera House Theater. “We all feel this is such a very special community asset. Not many of the opera houses that were built in that era have survived.” According to the Newport Opera House organization, it is the oldest surviving theater in Rhode Island.

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Vareika said the festivities would not be held at the Opera House itself, which is at 19 Touro St. For one thing, she said, the building is still a construction site. For another, it’s very cold inside.

So, she said, celebrants were gathering at the Colony House in Washington Square for a performance by jazz singer Shenel Johns and then heading to the Stoneacre Brasserie to continue the festivities.

Vareika said The Newport Opera House is aiming for a grand reopening in the fall of 2018. When completed, she said, it will have about 700 seats and include a rooftop deck with views of Newport harbor. The theater will be open all year long and could serve as a venue for all types of music — classical, jazz, folk, rock — plus theater, dance, events and educational programming.

Several arts organizations, including the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, the Island Moving Company dance troupe, Trinity Repertory Company and the Newport Music Festival, have expressed interest in using the theater. Dominique Alfandre, executive director of the Island Moving Company, said last year the Opera House will be “a huge beacon of fun and light and energy” for Newport.

The Newport Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center received a $4.2 million grant as part of the Rhode Island Cultural Facilities Bond, approved by state voters in 2014, under the condition that the Opera House match the grant. Vareika said that has been accomplished.

But she said an additional $5 million must be raised to complete the project. Vareika said she’s confident that the Opera House can obtain the funding from foundations, private donations, and state and federal tax credits.

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