After $3.5M gift, Lyric Opera House to carry Modell name

One of the city's cultural landmarks is about to get a new name thanks to a $3.5 million gift from the former owner of the Baltimore Ravens.

The Lyric — also known as the Lyric Opera House and, when it opened in 1894, the Music Hall — will become the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric after an official ceremony on Sept. 21.

The change acknowledges the donation from Modell and his wife. The gift, one of the largest made to a Baltimore cultural institution, completes a $12.5 million capital campaign by the Lyric Foundation.

"When I moved to Baltimore, the first time I went to the Lyric I was very taken with it," said Patricia Modell, a former actress. "It had charm to it, and the acoustics are marvelous. When I heard about [the renovation plans], I thought if we could help out to keep the Lyric going, we would. Music and theater give something to our souls. To hear beautiful music, to watch wonderful acting can bring a little happiness to people, I hope. That's why we [made the gift]."

The money ensures completion of extensive renovations to the 2,564-seat theater, which was home to the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company, a tenant of the Lyric for five decades. The improvements to the stage area will offer possibilities for more elaborate and cost-efficient productions of a variety of works. The renovations are scheduled for completion by the fall of 2011, when a staging of Verdi's popular opera "La Traviata" will be presented by the Lyric.

"We're very grateful to the Modells," said Edward J. Brody, president of the Lyric Foundation. "Art and Pat have a love of the arts. They've been with us many times to the opera. The board was 100 percent in favor of [the renaming] to recognize their gift, which is quite magnanimous."

The Modell contribution ranks among the most generous private donations to a cultural organization in the city. The largest, lump-sum individual gift remains Dorothy McIlvain Scott's $10 million to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2007. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been the recipient of more than $20 million during the past three decades from Joseph Meyerhoff, whose name is on the orchestra's concert hall, and the Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.

The Lyric has been gradually upgraded over the years, with improvements to seating, air-conditioning, dressing rooms and lobby. The final phase, recently started, includes modernization of the stage area.

"We will increase the depth by 15 percent and the height by 25 percent," said Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the Lyric.

The outmoded hemp-and-sandbag system for raising and lowering scenery — "like you see in cartoons," Richmond said — will be replaced with a counterweight system. This efficiency and other improvements open the possibility of more elaborate touring and self-presented productions.

"Primarily, people will notice the largeness, for lack of a better word, of the stage elements we will be able to accommodate, the theatrical effects and the ability to make quick scenery changes," said Jim Harp, the Lyric's director of opera and educational activities. "The sets for 'La Traviata' next year are coming from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and are as opulent and beautiful as you will see at any theater in the world. We would never have been able to accommodate them before."

Another of the renovations in the house will be particularly helpful to performers who need to move from one side of the stage to the other without being seen by the audience. Previously, that meant traveling underneath the stage. They'll be able to use a crosswalk being built behind the stage wall, above the sidewalk on Maryland Avenue.

"The Lyric has always offered a widespread diversity of opera, Broadway, gospel, comedians and more," Harp said. "We will continue to have that diversity, but at a higher production level."

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