Baltimore Opera's

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was good enough for Nellie Melba, who sang in the inaugural concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Halloween Night 1894. It was also good enough for Enrico Caruso, Marcella Sembrich and Louise Homer, who subsequently appeared there with the Metropolitan Opera, not to mention John McCormack, Luisa Tetrazzini and Mary Garden, who starred in other touring troupes.

But is the Lyric Opera House really good enough for the Baltimore Opera Company?

When that institution launches its 50th anniversary season next month, some folks, especially those stuck in the awkwardly sight-lined sections of the 106-year-old theater on Mount Royal Avenue, may be daydreaming about something else: An architecturally striking, horseshoe-shaped opera house with a sense of intimacy between audience and performers, yet with state-of-the-art staging facilities big enough to handle the grandest of productions with ease.

Although the Lyric has served the city's musical life well, it's far from an ideal venue for opera. Patterned (inside, at least) after the famed Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, the rectangular configuration clearly says "concert hall," rather than "opera house." Yet it has had to function over the decades not only for grand opera productions and symphony orchestras, but for Broadway shows, boxing matches, cotillions, and even a demonstration of once-novel electric cooking.

Like many multipurpose facilities constructed around the country in more recent decades, this venerable, 2,564-seat local institution has built-in limitations. They, in turn, put limitations on the users of the hall. Some of those drawbacks, such as the absence of a real lobby, have been corrected over the years. Other problems, such as lack of stage height and depth, are due to be addressed in two years during a major renovation estimated to cost about $8 million. And a much-clamored-for, non-aesthetic improvement has just been made this summer -- more stalls in the ladies' rooms.

These upgrades are made possible by the efforts of the theater's owner since 1968, the Lyric Foundation, an offshoot of the University of Baltimore's Educational Foundation. The changes delight Baltimore Opera management, which will utter nary a discouraging word about the place.

"The new Lyric staff has done everything possible to accommodate the needs of the opera company," says general director Michael Harrison. "For years, no one would do anything for us; the attitude was 'take it or leave it.' Now, the entire organization is behind us, and we're very grateful."

Harrison is looking forward to the 2002 stage renovations, which will allow the company to handle larger scenic designs.

"It will make the Lyric a proper theater," Harrison says, "though I hate to say it's not that now."

Great space, but not for opera

Well, if he won't say it, I will. The Lyric doesn't even have a proper facade; the attractive original design was never realized due to lack of money. Instead, a monstrous, faceless, 1960s- office-style substitute was eventually stuck onto the theater. The result is like finding a plastic frame on a Whistler painting.

To be sure, the Lyric's interior has charm, with the faces of great (and a little-less-than-great) composers lining the upper walls. It has history and character well worth preserving. It should have a place in local cultural life. But the Lyric's true calling is not to serve as an opera house.

That Baltimore Opera has grown in quality and reputation so impressively over the years says a lot for its adaptability to challenging surroundings. But imagine what it could accomplish in a brand new theater built with opera in mind.

"You can put on technically, artistically and acoustically higher-quality performances because it is designed specifically for the needs of opera," says David Gockley, longtime general director of Houston Grand Opera, which opened its splendid Wortham Theater Center in 1987. "It's the same in sports, with people moving away from all-purpose stadiums to ballparks like Camden Yards. A football stadium has special needs, a baseball stadium has special needs. It's the same for arts organizations. A good theater gets the essence of the art form across better."

Last April, Houston Opera presented its 25th world premiere production -- Carlisle Floyd's "Cold Sassy Tree." One of the co-producing companies for that new work is Baltimore Opera, which expects to offer the work during its 2002-2003 season. Baltimore's participation was certainly welcomed (to defray costs of new productions, companies often join forces), but it also meant compromise.

"We had to make major accommodations in the set so that it could fit in Baltimore," Gockley says. "Baltimore is extraordinarily limited in what they can do onstage. It's a real problem. A new theater would offer the capability of doing more scenically lavish, substantial productions."

A new opera house can mean other things, too.

"It puts your opera company on the map," Gockley says. "People want to go there. It is also easier to do things in repertory when you have your own theater, and that might attract more critics and out-of-town audiences who like to see more than one thing on a trip."

Big costs, big possibilities

Of course, all of this carries a price. But it's worth noting that the Wortham Theater Center -- two venues, one with 2,400 seats, the other 1,100 -- was built for $72 million with all private funds during one of Houston's most depressed times economically. So anything is possible. People in Houston are currently anteing up another $75 million or so to build a theater complex that will be devoted to musicals. Meanwhile, folks in Dallas and Miami are getting serious about building new opera houses for those communities.

Raising money for such mammoth undertakings is never easy, but, as Gockley points out, "there are always people who want to underwrite boxes and patron rooms, not unlike with sports arenas. And there are ways to give higher-end donors the kind of treatment and perks that encourages them to ante up more."

Baltimore is not without potential high-end donors. And an opera house, especially one situated with great visual flair on a prime harbor location, might attract a wave of philanthropy.

"There's been a dream of a new theater on the water for a long time," Harrison says. "But it would take such an enormous amount of money. It would be better to make sure that we could sustain a longer opera season first. We could not sustain a new theater on our own."

Harrison's point is well taken. Houston Opera presents seven to 10 productions annually; Baltimore is currently at five. Houston Opera also has Houston Ballet to share the Wortham Theater Center; Baltimore is currently without a major ballet company or even a major series of visiting dance companies.

But could the prospect of a new, world-class theater help spur Baltimore Opera's expansion? Opera has never been more popular than it is today. Taking full advantage of that upsurge could yield unexpected sources of revenue. And a campaign to build a facility -- perhaps with an eye-catching design that would yield a visual logo for the city, a la the Sydney Opera House -- could become a galvanizing adventure for the community, a source of inspiration and, ultimately, of pride.

Yes, the Lyric is better than it was. Yes, the next round of enhancements will make a difference to users and audiences. But that theater cannot make the kind of dramatic statement a true opera house can, and should. Baltimore Opera deserves much more. So, for that matter, does Baltimore.

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