MORE THAN 20 YEARS after owners began modernizing the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, they are seeking funds to complete the last major phase of the project, expansion of the backstage facilities.
The nonprofit Lyric Foundation, owner of the 106-year-old, 2,564-seat theater on Mount Royal Avenue, is seeking $2 million from the Maryland General Assembly this spring to help fund a $5 million to $6 million reconstruction of the stage area. Other funds will be sought from public and private sources, including the city of Baltimore.
The proposed work includes expanding the depth of the stage from about 33 feet to about 53 feet and increasing the clear space above the stage from 65 feet to at least 90 feet.
The owners also would expand the loading-dock area and replace the old "hemp house" system of ropes and sandbags that is used to carry scenery with a system of ropes and counterweights able to lift larger and heavier scenery.
Expanding the backstage area was part of the master plan that was developed in the 1970s by the design firm Richter Cornbrooks Matthai Hopkins, now RCG Inc.
Owners say they concentrated on other improvements first, including restoration of the interior; adding amenities such as a new lobby and better dressing and rehearsal rooms; and constructing offices for the Baltimore Opera Company.
With that work complete -- at a cost of more than $17 million -- the Lyric Foundation wants to move ahead with improvements that will enable producers to stage shows there that can't be presented now because of backstage limitations.
"Everything else has now been done," said H. Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore and chairman of the executive committee of the Lyric Foundation. "It's time to take the final step."
Improving the Lyric has been good for the surrounding area, he said. "It brings people downtown. It improves safety. It provides income for merchants and parking lots. It keeps life in the neighborhood."
This is "the last big piece," agreed Jonathan Fishman, principal in charge of the project for RCG. "This will give them enormous flexibility. It will provide them with the capability of supporting the largest Broadway shows and the best opera."
One tenant that stands to benefit greatly is the Baltimore Opera Company, which stages five productions a year at the Lyric.
Michael Harrison, general director of the opera company, said the expansion would enable it to use scenery and sets that require more space than the Lyric now has backstage. He said it also would enable the opera to increase its productions at the Lyric from five to six by providing enough space to store sets for two productions at once, so that different shows could be staged on alternating nights.
"I've been hoping for this for 11 years," Harrison said. "It would be marvelous. It would be an enormous help to us."
Harrison said the opera company would be willing to make a long-term commitment to perform at the Lyric if it could secure the dates it needs far enough in advance.
"As long as we can get the time we need at the Lyric, it will make a fine home for us. I'm delighted that they're moving ahead with this," he said.
To expand the backstage area, the foundation would have to knock down the wall on the Maryland Avenue side of theater and build a fly tower that would come closer to the street. Preliminary plans by RCG call for the expanded stage area to be built over the sidewalk on the west side of Maryland Avenue but not jutting into the street.
Depending on whether the sidewalk can be widened and how close the new outer wall would come to Maryland Avenue, planners say, the expansion could increase the stage depth by as much as 20 feet. Before work could begin, city agencies would have to approve plans for the addition, which would be constructed over a public right of way.
If sufficient funds are approved in time, construction could begin early next year and be completed by fall 2002.
The latest funding request for the Lyric would bring the total state contribution to $10.15 million since the 1970s.
Lyric Foundation President Lowell Bowen said $1.11 million in debt is outstanding on previous loans. "Taxes generated by Lyric patrons have always more than paid principal and interest on all previous loans and will do so once again," he said.
Neither the Lyric Opera House nor the Lyric Foundation has received or asked for operating support from the state, Bowen noted. The Lyric is raising a permanent endowment to help cover costs of maintenance and improvement of the theater for years to come, he said.