Peeking Behind the Curtain

(Newport Daily News, By Sean Flynn)

NEWPORT — The Opera House on Washington Square has a long history of hosting a variety of artistic performances, a legacy the developing Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center would like to continue, beginning in late 2018.

Buffalo Bill Cody appeared at the Opera House in March 1882 and the famous California vocalists “The Hyers Sisters” gave two grand concerts there in April 1875. Rice’s Opera Company presented one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s celebrated comic operas in March 1883, while Kilties Great Clan Johnstone Troupe of Dancers & Pipers from the Palace Theatre in London were there in November 1903.

Christopher Buckley, a theater consultant with Production & Performance Facilities Consulting of New York City, led a tour of the Opera House on Thursday afternoon and outlined the state-of-the-art features the new performing arts center would have. Brenda Nienhouse, the Opera House’s executive director, was joined by project architect Mohamad Farzan, of NewPort Architecture; Chuck Berlinghof, the owner’s representative for the board of trustees; Bob Murgo, the construction supervisor for Farrar Associates Inc. of Newport, the general contractor; Bob Ensign, communications and marketing director for the Opera House; and other guests including a reporter and photographer.

Nienhouse said theater groups of actors, dance studios, concert producers and booking agents have been touring the performing arts center as the reconstruction continues. People can imagine the beauty and grandeur of what the finished theater will look like and are excited by what’s coming, she said.

“Everything’s moving forward,” Nienhouse said. “We’re pleased with the progress.”

Planning for the revitalization of the Opera House and its transformation into a new performing arts center began in 1999. The nonprofit Newport Performing Arts Center LLC bought the building in 2001. The theater’s 1970s-era facade was stripped away in 2002-03 and the original brick facade was restored at a cost of more than $1.5 million.

The creation of the performing arts center is an $18 million project, for which $12 million has been raised. Fundraising for the remaining $6 million is underway.

“Community support is needed to get us to the finish line,” Nienhouse said.

The reconstructed theater will have 500 seats in the orchestra level and 200 seats in the balcony, which is less than the 1,100 seats the Opera House had when it opened in 1867. Buckley said the footprint of one of today’s seats is almost double what it was at that time. Today’s patrons just need more room, he said.

At the front of the stage is an orchestra pit, which will have an electric spiral lift that can be set at three levels. At the lowest level, it will serve as a traditional orchestra pit with the musicians out-of-sight. At mid-level, there will seats for orchestra members who will be seen, but not blocking the view of the stage. At the top level, the surface becomes an extension of the stage.

Ballet performances, for example, need a large stage, Nienhouse said.

Buckley explained the modern lighting and sound systems that will be installed, and how everything will function. There is now a completed new tunnel underneath the stage that will allow actors, dancers and performers to enter and leave the stage from both sides. There are new “Shakespeare” doors on each side of the front stage that will allow additional entries and exits to and from the stage, with access to the tunnel as well via winding staircases on either side.

The floor of the new tunnel is “zero elevation, meaning high-tide sea level,” Berlinghof said. The tunnel floor is about 16 feet below the Brick Alley Pub walkway behind the Opera House and the tunnel itself is 7 feet high.

The old annex building next to the Opera House has been taken down and a new annex building is at the beginning stages of construction. It will be four stories tall and house a loading area, dressing rooms, freight elevator, offices, bathrooms and all equipment that creates noise. There will be a gap, called a seismic connection, between the annex and theater so noise will not travel into the performing arts section.

The fourth floor of the rebuilt Opera House will feature a mansard roof on the street side and a roof garden at the back. That is yet to be constructed.

To understand why so much has be done to create a new performing arts center, it’s necessary to recap some of the history.

With the growing popularity of movies in the 1920s, the Opera House entered a new era as a movie theater and was reconstructed in 1929.

The formerly adjacent Perry House Hotel was severely damaged by a fire in 1955 and it spread to the Opera House, which had hotel rooms in the upper floors that were connected to the Perry House. A new structure was built to replace the hotel and while the Opera House lost its fourth floor, it continued to operate as a movie theater.

In 1979, the Opera House became a modern two-screen theater. A third theater was created later to increase options for customers and complete the transformation to a multiplex movie theater.

The 150th anniversary of the Opera House will take place this Dec. 28, since the first curtain went up in the theater on Dec. 28, 1867. The following year until Dec. 28, 2018, will be the “anniversary year” that will see a new grand opening, Nienhouse said.

“We are committed to that,” she said.

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