Baltimore Opera's

Next Stage

The Lyric was fine in its heyday,

but the time has come for Baltimore to build a first-rate opera house.

September 24, 2000|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It was good enough for Nellie Melba, who sang in the inaugural concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Halloween Night 1894. It was also good enough for Enrico Caruso, Marcella Sembrich and Louise Homer, who subsequently appeared there with the Metropolitan Opera, not to mention John McCormack, Luisa Tetrazzini and Mary Garden, who starred in other touring troupes.

But is the Lyric Opera House really good enough for the Baltimore Opera Company?

When that institution launches its 50th anniversary season next month, some folks, especially those stuck in the awkwardly sight-lined sections of the 106-year-old theater on Mount Royal Avenue, may be daydreaming about something else: An architecturally striking, horseshoe-shaped opera house with a sense of intimacy between audience and performers, yet with state-of-the-art staging facilities big enough to handle the grandest of productions with ease.

Although the Lyric has served the city's musical life well, it's far from an ideal venue for opera. Patterned (inside, at least) after the famed Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, the rectangular configuration clearly says "concert hall," rather than "opera house." Yet it has had to function over the decades not only for grand opera productions and symphony orchestras, but for Broadway shows, boxing matches, cotillions, and even a demonstration of once-novel electric cooking.

Like many multipurpose facilities constructed around the country in more recent decades, this venerable, 2,564-seat local institution has built-in limitations. They, in turn, put limitations on the users of the hall. Some of those drawbacks, such as the absence of a real lobby, have been corrected over the years. Other problems, such as lack of stage height and depth, are due to be addressed in two years during a major renovation estimated to cost about $8 million. And a much-clamored-for, non-aesthetic improvement has just been made this summer -- more stalls in the ladies' rooms.

These upgrades are made possible by the efforts of the theater's owner since 1968, the Lyric Foundation, an offshoot of the University of Baltimore's Educational Foundation. The changes delight Baltimore Opera management, which will utter nary a discouraging word about the place.

"The new Lyric staff has done everything possible to accommodate the needs of the opera company," says general director Michael Harrison. "For years, no one would do anything for us; the attitude was 'take it or leave it.' Now, the entire organization is behind us, and we're very grateful."

Harrison is looking forward to the 2002 stage renovations, which will allow the company to handle larger scenic designs.

"It will make the Lyric a proper theater," Harrison says, "though I hate to say it's not that now."

Great space, but not for opera

Well, if he won't say it, I will. The Lyric doesn't even have a proper facade; the attractive original design was never realized due to lack of money. Instead, a monstrous, faceless, 1960s- office-style substitute was eventually stuck onto the theater. The result is like finding a plastic frame on a Whistler painting.

To be sure, the Lyric's interior has charm, with the faces of great (and a little-less-than-great) composers lining the upper walls. It has history and character well worth preserving. It should have a place in local cultural life. But the Lyric's true calling is not to serve as an opera house.

That Baltimore Opera has grown in quality and reputation so impressively over the years says a lot for its adaptability to challenging surroundings. But imagine what it could accomplish in a brand new theater built with opera in mind.

"You can put on technically, artistically and acoustically higher-quality performances because it is designed specifically for the needs of opera," says David Gockley, longtime general director of Houston Grand Opera, which opened its splendid Wortham Theater Center in 1987. "It's the same in sports, with people moving away from all-purpose stadiums to ballparks like Camden Yards. A football stadium has special needs, a baseball stadium has special needs. It's the same for arts organizations. A good theater gets the essence of the art form across better."

Last April, Houston Opera presented its 25th world premiere production -- Carlisle Floyd's "Cold Sassy Tree." One of the co-producing companies for that new work is Baltimore Opera, which expects to offer the work during its 2002-2003 season. Baltimore's participation was certainly welcomed (to defray costs of new productions, companies often join forces), but it also meant compromise.

"We had to make major accommodations in the set so that it could fit in Baltimore," Gockley says. "Baltimore is extraordinarily limited in what they can do onstage. It's a real problem. A new theater would offer the capability of doing more scenically lavish, substantial productions."

A new opera house can mean other things, too.

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