For nearly two decades, people have been talking about restoration of the 19th century Napa Valley Opera House.
Come Friday, Napans will get a chance to see firsthand what their contributions and goodwill have wrought.
The first phase of the $13.7 million project — the downstairs Caf Theatre — will open to the public with an appearance by Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves — the first public performance in the structure in 88 years.
Still to come is the more formal concert hall — slated to open early next year in the original second story space that debuted with a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in 1880 — as well as the River Room, a boutique and coffee shop overlooking a soon-to-be-landscaped park at the rear of the facility.
The opening of the Main Street performance hall is realization of a goal shared by many, including a pair of dreamers who helped bring the project to fruition, the late John Whitridge, a leading wine country preservationist, and the late Veronica di Rosa, celebrated artist and a leading light in saving and restoring the 19th century landmark.
Built in 1879, the Napa Valley Opera House is one of Napa's significant historical structures. Designed by Samuel and Joseph Newsome in the Italianate style, the second-story auditorium was the site of diverse entertainment events, ranging from readings by author Jack London and performances by soprano Luisa Tetrazzini and John Philip Sousa's band to vaudeville, political rallies and local dances.
The Opera House closed in 1914 due to earthquake damage, the advent of film and the decline of vaudeville.
"To provide something nice for the community while bringing an old theater back to life is the most exciting thing I've done in years," says Opera House executive director Michael Savage, who assumed his current post in August of 2000.
Former chairman of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Savage also served as managing director of the San Francisco Opera, overseeing renovation of the War Memorial Opera House following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
He's been overseeing Opera House restoration, assisting with fundraising, directing a staff of five that's brought the project to opening stage and building performance repertoire.
Savage and the small, nose-to-grindstone staff is, at this point, "still nail-biting" over the anticipation of this weekend's inaugural events.
Grammy Award winner this year for a recorded tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Dianne Reeves will bring her jazz stylings to the Caf Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday.
Throughout the day Saturday, staffers will offer tours of the Napa Valley Opera House, including Caf Theatre and a limited view of the upstairs auditorium, which is still under construction. That evening, area residents will have the opportunity to listen to four separate offerings in the Cafe Theatre between 6 and 10 p.m. Tickets for each of the shows are $5.
Come Sunday, London's leading lady Lorna Dallas teams up with Broadway vocalist George Dvorsky at 8 p.m. for "Let's Misbehave: The World, the Words and the Music of Cole Porter."
The clubby Caf Theatre accommodates about 200 patrons, while the upstairs Margrit Biever Mondavi Theatre — the more formal upstairs auditorium slated to open early next house — will seat 385 on the main floor, another 115 in the balcony.
The interior of the Caf Theatre is set up in nightclub fashion, with patrons seated in groups of four at cocktail rounds. It will open one hour prior to every performance, with a pair of bars offering a variety of savories and desserts, along with an assortment of beverages, including wine and beer.
Savage wants to see the Caf Theatre space "used every day of the year. It's available as a rental, and we've set up rates for all sorts of groups — for profit organizations, non-profits plus community and social organizations."
He envisions everything from wedding receptions to business meetings, jazz concerts to wine and food presentations taking place in the attractive space with its state-of-the-art acoustic design. It will also be used as a place where patrons attending performances upstairs can gather at intermission, or prior to a show, for a drink, quick bite or conversation.
As for the future of both performance spaces, upstairs and down, Savage points to an audience survey conducted nationwide. Some 40,000 people were sampled, he said. All were adults who earned $20,000 or more per year and indicated they frequented theaters.
The primary target was the Napa Valley and the greater Bay Area, including both visitors and people who have second homes here. Also sampled were some of the five million people who come to the Napa Valley every year. "We hope to attract some of them to the Opera House," Savage noted.
Asked what they'd like to see and hear, those taking part in the survey told Savage and marketing director Deb Stallings they enjoy stage plays, opera, dance, chamber music, jazz, world music, lectures and family shows.
"The family shows are important to us because we want kids to develop the habit of going to the theater," Savage adds. "So we're putting together a program of Sunday shows designed for kids and their parents.
"We're booking everything (mentioned by the survey group) except lectures at the moment."
Savage pointed out the Napa Valley Opera House is set up as a producing entity, in that it presents visiting entertainment groups. "We're taking all the marketing risks," he added.
When the upstairs auditorium opens, a subscription series will be offered to local patrons. Included on the series will be plays, small-scale musical theater, groups doing concert versions of Broadway musicals, jazz ensembles, chamber music groups, puppet shows and a mixture of Latin and world music combos.
"My dream," Savage says with a glint in his eye, " is to one day produce a couple of festivals here, say in the summer months. I'd love to see an opera festival and one for stage plays.
"With the cachet of the Napa Valley, I think we can attract world-renowned talent — inviting singers from the New York Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera here for a summer festival. I'd love to see something like Glyndebourne or Salzburg (opera festivals) in the Napa Valley — staging operas by Mozart, Handel and Strauss."
Savage says approximately $2 million more is needed to finish the restoration effort in the larger second story auditorium, and establish a sound operating fund.
"I'd like to be able to double our staff. We need a technical director and someone to oversee box office full time. At the moment, we're recruiting volunteers to serve as ushers, docents, to baby-sit the artists and even to serve as stagehands."
Savage and his staff are as ready as they can be for the weekend opening.
"The thrill of seeing an artistic performance come to life on stage is unlike anything else you can do," he beams. "Those are the moments I live for. And, for us, coming together as a team is the most thrilling thing anyone can possibly imagine."