Culture and the city live D.C. development: Bold move to turn vacant department store into grand opera house.

March 22, 1996

JUST WHEN some thought culture today meant rock concerts in the 'burbs, the Washington Opera buys the vacant Woodward and Lothrop department store at 11th and F Streets The company wants its own house for more performances. So much for the notion that opera is the past. At least in a town with a zillion hospitable lobbyists and no baseball to patronize, operas (soap, political, street and the real thing) thrive.

Second, the neighborhood. It's the shabby edge of the old retail area. Many people are not comfortable parking nearby after dark. Yet the Washington Opera proposes moving its clientele from the antiseptic safety of the Kennedy Center to the throbbing heart of downtown, virtually atop a station with three Metro lines. Not only are Washingtonians expected to go to the old downtown after dark but by subway.

Actually, the area just north is regenerating with the Convention Center, office towers and monster hotels. The opera would expand that district, saving the city by evolving new uses, not slavishly trying to resurrect old ones.

Hold the bravos. This is not a done deal. The ambitious opera company, which signed up tenor Placido Domingo as its artistic director, bought the building at auction in bankruptcy court. The D.C. Zoning Commission, which has ruled it should be retail, must be dealt with. Betty Brown Casey, who chairs the opera trustees, put up $18 million to buy the handsome building. Another $100 million must be found to stick a modern opera house inside.

Don't mourn for the Kennedy Center. It can find splendid touring companies to fill those 70 dates. Washington would then be more of a performing arts town. If this helps people here think more creatively about ways to develop Baltimore, too, so be it.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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