Standing outside Pennsylvania Station, I surveyed the summer's continuing transformations of the Mount Royal Avenue neighborhood. My eye caught the old Lyric, Baltimore's 1894 music hall-opera house-graduation stage. After a year partially encased in scaffolds and topped by a crane, the Lyric appeared complete, robust and ready for another season.
Its familiar east-facing roofline has been altered. There's a major new addition for stage housing and a new exterior walkway set out over the Maryland Avenue sidewalk. Performers and stagehands will now be able to cross the stage without having to descend and rise from the basement. The stage has been enlarged, too.
I've spent some of the happiest nights of my entertainment life in this old hall so revered by the audiences who saw their first productions of so many classics here. It is a well-recalled gathering place of the city. Time and the Lyric's numerous quirky tribulations have only endeared the place all the more.
An early recollection of the place is a school trip when Peter Herman Adler conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I was knocked over by the sheer girth of the interior, which seemed ancient 50 years ago. Its main auditorium was large without being cavernous. The lighting was gentle. There were seats all over the place, some on side balconies. As a child on the No. 11 Maryland Avenue bus, I observed with curiosity the old-fashioned bill posters glued to the Lyric's back wall. They proclaimed "Aida, in Italian" or "Victor Borge in concert."
I came to appreciate how wonderful theatrical music sounds here. The Lyric's acoustics have a deep, majestic, resonating quality that is not bright or loud. When listening to a Lyric performance, I am often reminded of a vintage wooden cabinet music system of the 1940s, perhaps a Philco or Magnavox. Opera orchestras don't overpower singers here. I love the way an opera chorus sounds within these confines. Is it the plaster, the bricks, the upholstery, or just the presence of so many well-fed music aficionados?
Officially renamed last year as the Modell Lyric Performing Arts Center, the place has emerged from one more of the several rebuilds I have witnessed over the years. This current one, talked about for decades, is a $12.5 million upgrade to the stage housing.
Except for a new stage curtain, some painting around the boxes, new aisle carpeting and upgrades to the 1940s ceiling cluster lights, audiences will note little change. The Lyric is the Lyric. But stagehands and performers will work in a different place.
I took a tour late this week with Sandy Richmond, president of the Modell Lyric Center. I could not help but think about the Lyric stage a year ago. It always amazed me that the grand spectacle of opera could be staged in such a confined space. The renovated and enlarged backstage of the Lyric now seems like some sort of soaring aircraft hangar. It was amazing.
Richmond took the comparison a step further. He called the old Lyric a "barn with wood in the air," a reference to the old wood truss system used for hanging sets and props. It's now all steel, with a new counterweight system. Up until last year, the old Lyric was still using enormous bags of sand to hold aloft the canvas panels for stage scenery.
And the shows go on. As painters finished up the exterior cornice, technicians were getting new light grids ready. The Lyric reopens next week with productions of "Sesame Street Live." Lyric Opera Baltimore's "La Traviata" arrives in November.