Lyric, planning to upgrade, could lose the opera

January 25, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, a 2,500-seat music hall that will mark its 100th anniversary Oct. 30, may lose one of its key tenants within the next several years, even though its owners intend to spend $2.4 million to upgrade the theater.

The Baltimore Opera Company, which has been based at the Lyric since its founding 43 years ago, is a potential occupant of the $70 million performing arts center being planned for the Mount Royal Cultural District, according to a "building program" drafted to guide architects designing the proposed facility.

If it moves, the opera company would join the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, now based at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center, as one of the major users of the two-hall complex planned for a state-owned parcel at 901 N. Howard St.

The move also would mean a loss of more than $130,000 a year in rent for the operators of the Lyric, unless the opera dates are filled by others. Three times a year, the opera company reserves 15-day blocks of time for rehearsals and productions, at a cost of about $44,600 each time, according to Lyric Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Robert M. Pomory.

Michael Harrison, general director of the opera company, said his organization has "not made any definite decisions in terms of moving." The opera company, he said, has been "very satisfied with the Lyric and all the efforts they have made to improve the facility for us." Mr. Harrison added that construction of the performing arts center is not a certainty, from his point of view, because the project is not fully funded. As a result, he said, "we expect to be at the Lyric for the foreseeable future."

At the same time, he said, the opera company would be shortsighted not to consider all its options, and he would want the board and staff to explore the idea of moving to the performing arts center if it is built.

But he said he would need more information about the availability of performance dates, lease terms and other specifics before he could take the issue to the opera's board for consideration.

"This is very new to us," he said. "We've had no official invitation to be part of it. We've been asked to give what our requirements would be."

For now, he said, "we are an interested bystander in the process. We're very supportive of the Lyric. We're very supportive of a new performing arts center."

Privately owned by the nonprofit Lyric Foundation, the opera house at 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. is in the black and receives no annual operating subsidies, according to H. Mebane Turner, chairman of the foundation's executive committee.

But it has had more than $14 million in improvements since 1978, including $7 million in state-funded renovations, so it can continue to accommodate the opera and other theatrical productions.

In the current session of the Maryland General Assembly, the Lyric Foundation is seeking $1.2 million in state funds toward a $2.4 million modernization project that would enlarge the backstage area, add a freight elevator and offices, and create new stage-level dressing rooms for star performers. In November, Baltimore voters will be asked to approve a $600,000 loan for the same project.

Mr. Turner said the Lyric construction project is intended to improve the theater for all users and would be needed whether the opera company remains a tenant or not.

He added that he is unaware of any plans by the opera to leave its home of more than four decades and "would not like to lose them." But he expressed confidence that the Lyric management would be able to find other theater groups to take its place, if necessary. Other users at present include the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and a group called Performing Arts Productions.

"Resident company"

The new complex will have two performing spaces, a 2,800-seat hall and a 650-seat hall. It is being planned for a 5.8-acre site south of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall by a group called Friends of the Performing Arts, under the leadership of Hope Quackenbush. Mrs. Quackenbush retired in 1993 after 15 years as managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

The opera's potential status as a "resident company" of the proposed performing arts center was mentioned in a 19-page planning document distributed this month to four architectural teams participating in a competition to design the project.

"The 2,800-seat Large Hall will provide a technically and economically appropriate venue for the presentation of major commercial events such as Broadway tours and popular entertainment, and will showcase the work of the Baltimore Opera Company," the document stated.

"The Baltimore Opera Company will present its season of 4 opera productions [16 total performances] in the hall, and additional events will be booked by local and national presenters, and the Center's management to round out the year."

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