Despite all I've heard about the antiquated working conditions at the 1894-built Lyric Opera House, I've had some of the most entertaining evenings of my life at Baltimore's music hall/opera house/graduation stage. But my curiosity got the best of me recently, so I requested a behind-the-curtain tour of the Lyric's current makeover. This is the one that has been talked about for decades, a $12.5 million upgrade to the stage housing.
The Cathedral Street side of the building looks as if someone airlifted the steel superstructure on a Harbor East office building onto where the third-act sets of "Tosca" rested.
The 1894 technology had endured until a few weeks ago, when the ropes and the sand bladders finally went into the construction Dumpsters. Incredible as it might seem, the theatrical sets and backdrops used at the theater used to be hoisted and dropped into place by ropes, balanced by sandbags weighing as much as a ton. It was like using gas to bring light to a house or blocks of ice for refrigeration.
In theater terminology, the Lyric was known as a "hemp house," meaning all the sets were hoisted on ropes in a time-honored tradition. The only problem is that sets have become larger. (In 2003, for instance, a German set designer arrived with an overweight "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" for the opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. The Lyric had to import special puller motors, of the order of something used in a Rolls-Royce, to create a factory interior and raise all that canvas. Audiences never realized the trouble it all took. It was a very naughty opera, and I loved it.)
This week I put on a hard hat and joined Lyric Foundation chairman Edward J. Brody, president Sandy Richmond and opera artistic director James Harp backstage. I saw the last of the wooden grids that supported the canvas and plaster sets of all those Aidas and Carmens be pulled down so that new steel cables can go in. It is an ambitious undertaking and will allow for more complicated stagings and shorter intermissions.
The backstage is now all scaffolding and looks like something out of "The Phantom of the Opera." It is true that the stage is not deep, but the current construction will eliminate some space-eating brick pillars. A new passageway will be pushed out, over the Cathedral Street sidewalk, so the players can cross from one side to the other without having to descend a floor and cross through the basement.
There's one funny thing about the building. Opened as the Music Hall, it was four walls and a roof, seats and a stage. The financiers ran out of the money needed to complete the fancy facade once envisioned. At one point, during the fanciest era of opera-length gloves and silk hats, audiences had to walk a canvas-covered walk to enter the Lyric. Baltimoreans dubbed this walk "Vinegard Alley."
The Lyric's often-threadbare purse led to some interesting bookings. Baltimore could not support a lengthy opera season. But the practical Lyric was a very busy house.
Consider some of its history. Noted prizefighter Joe Gans battled and lost to Mike "Twin" Sullivan on Sept. 15, 1905, at the Lyric. Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson sought to save Baltimoreans' souls from its stage. George Gershwin played the piano there. City police had to contain the 3,500 people who pushed into the 2,800-capacity hall when Enrico Caruso appeared in "Faust" on March 22, 1906. A Baltimore Sun reporter wrote at the time, "It was a sight for the gods." In the 1950s, when the Metropolitan Opera was there, a reporter took note of the "women encased in brocades, velvets and satins with gems sparkling at the throats."
I've heard all the complaints about the Lyric. The stage is not deep. It wasn't built to the standards of a real opera house. For years it was not air-conditioned. Irish tenor John McCormick didn't like the lighting. Financially, the Lyric always teetered. There was never quite enough money to do what needed to be done. The seats used to rattle because they had to be unbolted once a year for the Bachelors Cotillon.
At the end of the tour, I spotted a sign. Despite all the work, the auditorium remains in use and is booked through March, when heavier construction commences. A comedian recently performed there, and the sign, taped to an exit door, warned: "Hecklers will be ejected."