A half-century of operatic wandering finally ends expanded Lyric, the Baltimore Opera Company has a place it can now call home.

November 16, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

In the nearly 50 years since it was incorporated, the Baltimore Opera Company has had at least nine homes, including a doctors' office building, an insurance company headquarters, and the former Andre Empire (beauty) Salon on Charles Street.

But this fall the company has moved its headquarters to the most logical location of all -- the same building where it performs 24 days a year.

For the first time in its history, the opera company has office and rehearsal space at the Lyric Opera House, the 103-year-old theater at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues. As they prepared to present "Madama Butterfly" there this weekend, directors expressed delight with the new location.

"It's working wonderfully well," said opera company general manager Michael Harrison. "We're thrilled to be here."

It's much easier on the staff of 17 when everything is under one roof, said marketing director Deborah Goetz. "We were living like nomads before. This is much more efficient."

The opera company is the prime tenant of a $3 million, three-story expansion that the nonprofit Lyric Foundation is completing this fall, mostly on the south side of the theater.

Designed by RCG Inc. of Baltimore and built with a combination of public and private funds, the curving, copper-colored addition was constructed as part of a multiphase campaign to help the historic theater attract more Broadway-style touring shows and other productions by upgrading its back-of-the-house facilities.

Besides administrative offices for the opera company on the third level, the addition contains eight dressing rooms, a performers' lounge (known as a "green room"), a catering area and a large rehearsal hall on the second floor.

The first floor includes separate new ticket offices for the Lyric and the opera; offices for the Lyric Foundation, and a telemarketing room for arts and educational organizations.

The recent work also included expansion of the stage area to provide 300 square feet of additional storage space at stage right. That additional wing space is one of the most important features of the renovation because it gives the opera and others more room to maneuver when changing scenes.

"It makes a big difference" for the performers and audience, said carpenter and technical director George Tivvus. "If we didn't have that extra space, we'd have had a very tight fit. Scene changes would take a lot longer, and audiences would have to wait in their seats longer."

With the expanded wing space, "we can bring in bigger, more elaborate sets than we could before," Goetz said. "It will make the grand opera grander."

The entire project represents "a tremendous improvement in terms of ambience and our ability to mount the majority of productions," said H. Mebane Turner, chairman of the executive committee of the Lyric Foundation and president of the University of Baltimore.

"It makes the people who bring in the shows more pleased to be at the Lyric."

For a company such as the opera, which moved its offices from a two-story building on Maryland Avenue, one of the greatest benefits of having its headquarters at the theater is that it saves time, said Harrison.

Before, the company had office space in one location and rehearsal space in a second location -- most often a local church or a ballroom at the Belvedere -- and the actual performances in a third. When Harrison wanted to attend a rehearsal, he had to leave one building and head for another.

Now, he said, he can just step out of his third-floor office and take an elevator downstairs to the rehearsal hall or the auditorium itself. "It keeps us out of the rain, and it saves us a lot of time, which is an enormous benefit."

The new dressing rooms are ideally located because they're on the same level as the stage, Goetz said. As a result, the performers "don't have to run up and down steps as much."

The move has even helped boost ticket sales, because it's easier for patrons to find the box office now that it's part of the theater, Harrison said. Before, tickets were sold at the theater on show days but off-premises at other times.

"When you tell people that you're in some office building, they have to go out of the way to look for it and find a place to park," he said. Now, "people come here to buy tickets and they come here to see the opera. That association gives us greater prestige and higher standing in the community."

The second-floor facilities will benefit other groups that bring shows to the Lyric, such as the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts and Nicholas LiTrenta's Performing Arts Productions.

Because the dressing rooms and rehearsal space are rented along with the auditorium, they are available for use by any touring production that comes to the theater.

So far, bookings for the 1997-1998 season are stronger than they were last year, with 185 dates scheduled, compared with 155 during the 1996-1997 season.

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