Opera House stars

2003-07-26T00:00:00Z Opera House starsBy SARA CAKEBREAD
Napa Valley Register
July 26, 2003 12:00 am  • 

As someone who has adores any production of "H.M.S. Pinafore," I was thrilled to read that this timeless Gilbert and Sullivan treasure will be the first musical to run at the finally completed Napa Valley Opera House,123 years after the same show opened the theater in 1880.

But raising the curtain on the grand stage after 89 years of darkness did not come without its share of blood, sweat, tears and an extraordinary community effort to gather funds and friends.

In 1973, with what looked like a future under the wrecking ball, a passionate group of local arts and preservation enthusiasts led by the late John Whitridge III, Veronica di Rosa and Tom Thornley managed to ward off threats to the building by getting the Opera House listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Within a few years, the network grew to include Margrit Biever Mondavi, Harris Nussbaum, Joanna Muth, Dick Williams and Mary Kongsgaard. With a scantily clad plan, the group dived head first into the murky waters of historic restoration.

According to local historian and avid Opera House supporter Moira Johnston Block, "This early group provided the creative genius for the project, bringing the historic and environmental sensibility needed to once again make the building a cornerstone of the community."

Yet all the brilliant minds in the county could not turn this dream into reality without the several million dollars needed to make the Opera House a viable venue. It was time to get serious about finances.

To get the ball rolling, bon vivant Richard Miami introduced the Star Struck series, and Veronica di Rosa provided spirit and funding as she opened her home for special events. For years, the project pioneers maintained their activities and enthusiasm, despite the creeping realization that raising a lot of money was going to be harder than they thought. They could keep momentum going, but what they really needed was someone to spearhead a major fundraising effort.

In 1990, with a keen sense for finding just the right fit, Veronica Di Rosa brought Chuck and Cathy Ball on board and things started to sizzle. Not only did Chuck become president of the Opera House board of directors, he also recruited Valley newcomer and tireless go-getter Bill Kieschnick and others like him to join his ranks.

While her husband busied himself with his official board duties, Cathy Ball took it upon herself to found the Opera House League, which over time brought hundreds of women to the party and raised thousands of dollars through concerts, special events and the establishment of an annual gala and auction.

Then in October of 1991 Veronica di Rosa, the main fuel in the reconstruction fire, was killed in a hiking accident. For many, the fear of the project coming to a standstill became a reality. After a year of declining energy, vintner and Opera House supporter Joseph Phelps decided it was time to move on. With a $100,000 donation, he made his support for Veronica and the Opera House clear and encouraged the community to do the same. "There is no doubt this was a turning point for all of us," notes Mrs. Block.

In 1997, Robert and Margrit Biever Mondavi put forth a $2.2 million dollar matching grant and according to former Board President Peter Chiarella, "This was just the ticket (then board president) Bill Kieschnick and his team needed to make things happen."

On Aug. 1, 30 years after the first grass roots volunteers raised their hands to save the grand lady of Napa from demolition, the Opera House will host its official opening night, and countless community members and others who gave their time and resources for up to three decades will see their dream become a reality.

Past and present board members such as Dr. Alvin Lee Block, Penelope Brault, Thomas Bartlett, Barbara Eisele, Charles Roy and Richard Williams will surely be in attendance along with other honored supporters such as Rene di Rosa, Joe and Lois Phelps, Irene Scully, Katie and Michael Wright, the Robert Mondavis, Gerald and KC Cunningham, Nieves and Kozo Sato, Jean Whitridge and current board president Charles Stahl and his wife Juliana.

For many, the road to the Opera House was often a rocky one, but when the curtain rises in the Margrit Biever Mondavi Theatre and special guest Rita Moreno takes the stage next weekend, it is bound to be a smooth and glorious ride.

Sara Cakebread can be reached at smcake@aol.com

Copyright 2016 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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