Havre de Grace Opera House opening week is Aug. 6-13

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The opening week for the refurbished Havre de Grace Opera House will be Aug. 6-13, with shows every night to celebrate the completion of a two-year, nearly $4 million renovation project.

"It will give a chance for everyone to come on in, check out the theater, see what it's like," Rebecca Jessop, executive director of the Havre de Grace Arts Collective, said.

The Collective is a nonprofit entity responsible for managing the city-owned facility and booking acts. More information is online at http://hdgartscollective.org.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the renovation work, which is expected to be wrapped up by the end of next week, according to William Price, chairman of the board for the Collective.

The week of Monday, July 31, will be dedicated to getting lighting and control systems set up and training volunteers and workers such as technicians and box office staff.

"There's a lot of outfitting, from an entertainment point of view, that needs to happen," Price said.

Price and Jessop gave a tour of the renovation work Sunday.

They stressed the facility's full name will be The Cultural Center at the Opera House, as it will host a slew of different productions, including theater, dance, music, film and artwork.

"One of the fewest things that we'll have here is true opera," Price said.

The Havre de Grace Opera House Foundation, which had been overseeing the renovation and fundraising for the renovation, will keep raising money to support Opera House operations and, potentially, new organizations, according to Price

Renovation delays

Renovation work started in June of 2015. Much of the $4 million price tag has been covered by private contributions as well as allocations from the city, county and the state — the largest amount is $2.1 million in borrowed bond funds, which city voters approved during the 2016 municipal election.

Private contributions have come from sources such as Louis and Phyllis Friedman, WCXY-FM in Havre de Grace and those who purchased naming rights for seats in the main theater, according to Jessop.

City officials reported in March that they expected construction would be done by June. That has been delayed, however, until the end of this month.

Price noted there is a great deal of state-of-the-art technology being installed in a building that dates to 1870, which has proved challenging at times.

"You're interfacing new infrastructure with an old building," he said.

Price stressed planners have maintained as much of the "historical integrity" as possible, and the plans were approved by the Maryland Historical Trust.

He and Jessop pointed out touches such as original windows with wavy glass, original wood on support columns in the first-floor gallery, and the decorative tin ceiling, which dates to the 1920s, in the main theater on the second floor.

The Opera House is next door to the Susquehanna Hose Company's House 2 — an historic building itself — at the intersection of Union and Pennington avenues.

Price and Jessop showed an Aegis reporter all aspects of the facility, including the first-floor gallery for art shows. The box office is designed to be accessible for people with disabilities with a lower window for people in wheelchairs. There's also a black-box theater on the first floor.

They also showed the atrium connecting the Opera House and the firehouse, with its elevator that people with disabilities can use to get to the second floor — Price noted the elevator will go up one and a half stories, as the top level leads to the backstage area for the main theater on the second floor.

The second level of the atrium will have space for concessions, and it can be used to cross to the meeting room on the second floor of the firehouse.

"Eventually we hope to use that [meeting room] so we can have dinner and a show," Price said.

The stage in the main theater was covered Sunday with cardboard boxes holding the new theater seats — the theater will seat about 200 people, and people can still contribute to the renovation by purchasing a seat and putting their names on it.

Jessop ran her hand over one of the seats while it was in its box, noting the softness.

"We will have comfortable seats," she said.

Members of Susquehanna Hose Co., the city's volunteer fire company, who were present at House 2 Saturday praised the inclusion of features that make the Opera House accessible to the disabled, especially the elevator.

"All buildings with elevators, it helps us out tremendously," Lt. Tim Sturgill said.

He, along with firefighter Staci Carpenter, noted the elevator will make it easier to get their equipment to the second floor, if there is a medical emergency up there.

"I think it's nice that they're trying to preserve history and make it handicap accessible," Carpenter said.

Opera House history

The Opera House had three stories when it opened in the 1870s, according to a news release from the City of Havre de Grace.

The third story was destroyed in a fire in the early 20s, and it was replaced with a roof, according to that release.

The building was used as an elementary school and a theater until a new elementary school opened on Congress Avenue — the site of the present-day Havre de Grace High School — in 1897.

The first floor became the home of Havre de Grace City Hall from 1897 until 1993, and the second floor was used for theater productions, concerts, dances and community meetings, according to the release.

The Opera House has rarely hosted operas during its history, but the name carried more prestige than "music hall" or "theater" at the time it opened, as society considered the latter terms "morally corrupt," according to the release.

"Thus, the words 'opera house' preserved the moral standing of the theatrical house, even though the entertainment inside was the same as in any music hall or theater of the time," according to the news release. "Many American communities built 'opera houses.'"

The Tidewater Players, the local community theater group, has called the Opera House home for more than 25 years. They have moved off-site during the renovation, and they will use the renovated facility for their productions for five months of the year, according to Price.

A Tidewater Players show, "The Best of Tidewater Players - a Musical Review!" will kick off opening week on Aug. 6 — Price noted that show has been sold out.

Visit https://hdgoperahouse.org for a full list of shows for opening week. Admission for all events is $5, except for the Aug. 12 performance by the Sicilian Tenors.

Those tickets are $40 each, according to the website. Jessop said that show is a fundraiser for the Havre de Grace Arts Commission.

She said the $5 admission for the other shows is "a gift to the citizens" from the city.

The Tidewater Players will start their 2017 season in September. Jessop said they will be "super users" of the Opera House. The Collective will book shows to fill the building when the Tidewater Players are not using it.

"We are going to do the programming in the Opera House and manage the Opera House, and manage the arts and entertainment district on behalf of the city," Price said.

The state gives the designation of Arts and Entertainment District to communities across Maryland to promote neighborhood and downtown revitalization through the arts, according to the website of the Maryland State Arts Council.

Price said the Collective can work with allied organizations to bring arts and entertainment-related events to Havre de Grace.

He said the organization has a budget of $170,000 for fiscal 2018. Some revenue sources include allocations from the city for part of Jessop's salary — she will be the Collective's only full-time employee — and a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Price declined to say what Jessop's salary will be, but noted "it's full time, commensurate with her level of responsibility."

Jessop has 25 years of prior experience in the nonprofit field, from the arts to social services, according to a biography she provided.

She will step down as director of the Town of Bel Air Film Festival after this year's festival, which is scheduled for October.

"We really needed somebody who could hit the ground running," Price said.

The Collective is also applying for Harford County hotel tax funds, money from the Harford County Cultural Arts Board and additional city funds for programming.

Gate receipts are also sources of revenue, according to Price. Jessop said managers plan to encourage area businesses and corporations to use the Opera House as a meeting space during the day.

Price noted organizers are taking a "shotgun approach" to attracting productions for the first year of the renovated Opera House.

"We're tying to figure out what the audience is interested in," he said.

There are committees of about five or six people each, within the Collective, who will oversee the different aspects of the Opera House offerings, such as theater, music, film and art.

"We've been able to leverage their understanding and connections in the entertainment industry to bring in talent," Pride said.

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