As the Lyric reaches the century mark, its guardians are hoping there's life in the old theater yet

THE NEXT ACT

October 23, 1994|By Edward Gunts

It took three owners to the brink of financial ruin.

It lost its major tenant more than once.

In the 1960s, it was so rundown that Baltimore's mayor recommended it be razed.

But next week, barring any catastrophes, Baltimore's venerable Lyric Opera House will reach a milestone that few cultural institutions attain anymore.

Oct. 31 will mark the 100th anniversary of the night maestro Emil Paur led the Boston Symphony Orchestra into the prelude to Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg," the first number in the gala concert held to celebrate the opening of Baltimore's newest performance venue, then called the Music Hall.

Nellie Melba, the famed Australian soprano, crowned the evening with her rendition of Handel's "Sweet Bird" aria. Architect T. Henry Randall, who modeled his design on the Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, joined the throngs backstage, where he was congratulated on the acoustics.

In the intervening years, the Lyric has featured opera stars and orators, wrestlers and rockers, hypnotists and Hindu fakirs. William Jennings Bryan, Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart and Will Rogers appeared on its stage. So did Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Quinn and Michael Crawford.

For years, it ranked high on lists of the world's finest music halls, acclaimed for its distinctive "Lyric sound" and air of gentility.

The theater -- renamed the Lyric after a change of ownership in 1909 -- "has charm and a feeling of southern hospitality that almost makes you expect to find a butler at intermission passing hot confections on burnished salvers," critic Leo Beranek wrote in a 1962 survey of halls around the world.

The Lyric has also been a cultural touchstone to generations of Marylanders. Many savor memories of their first trip to the opera or a holiday show of "The Nutcracker" there. Thousands of women made their debuts at the Bachelors Cotillion held there every spring. Tickets to the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra's performances there were so hard to obtain that families passed them down from generation to generation.

It was "the backbone of Baltimore's musical life," recalls Carolyn Hutzler, a longtime Lyric Foundation board member.

On opera night, "the place was filled with thrilling and charming people. It was glamorous. It was the place to see and be seen. It was society night."

Adds Harold Manekin, past chairman of the Lyric board: "There's nothing to compare with [the Lyric] in the state. If it weren't here, I don't know what people in Howard County or Baltimore County or Carroll County would be doing. I guess they'd be going to

Washington."

The best of times?

Given such an illustrious history, these should be the best of times for the music hall, Baltimore's oldest continuously operating public theater -- and one of the oldest in the country.

For the 75th anniversary, the Boston Symphony returned and performed the same concert it did on opening night. This year, there might have been a week of festivities to mark the end of the Lyric's first century, and to look ahead to the next.

Instead, on this Oct. 31, the theater will be dark. Members of the Lyric Foundation, the nonprofit group that operates the building, talked about holding a reception to mark the milestone. But they decided to wait until midway through the 100th year, when they can unveil a mural that is being installed in the upper lobby. As far as bookings go, Oct. 31 will be just another date on the Lyric's calendar, an off-night between two shows.

If no one at the Lyric is taking particular note of the past, foundation members are clearly focused on its future. The Lyric has weathered rough times, and more could lie ahead:

* Twelve years ago, it lost its main tenant -- and in many respects, its reason for being -- when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra moved two blocks away to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The move was the culmination of a successful campaign by former BSO music director Sergiu Comissiona and others to build an exclusive home for the symphony, and it left the Lyric without a resident orchestra for the first time in 66 years.

* A subsequent effort to replace the symphony concerts with Broadway-style productions has been an uphill struggle in a building never designed for the kind of large traveling shows producers put on today.

* Competition is mounting in the form of new suburban performing arts centers planned for such areas as Pikesville, Columbia and Owings Mills, where the $4 million, 550-seat Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for the Performing Arts will open next April.

* There's talk of a new performing arts center with a 2,800-seat hall practically next door to the Lyric: the $60 million Maryland Center for the Performing Arts, proposed for the former Baltimore Life Insurance Co. site at 901 N. Howard St. Its driving force is Hope Quackenbush, former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which books shows at the Lyric and the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center.

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