If the Napa Valley Opera House isn’t converted to a cabaret-style showroom next year, it’s only a matter of time before the Main Street venue becomes a museum to what once was.
That was the message trustees and staff delivered to Opera House members Thursday night during a meeting called to discuss the future of the restored 19th-century performance space now celebrating its 10th anniversary season.
“We cannot maintain the present business model,” board chairman Bob Almeida told a crowd of locals who invested over the years in special membership and other fundraising programs aimed at keeping the unique second-story performance space up and running.
Almeida and others spelled out the previously announced plan to sublease the building to City Winery of New York and Chicago, one that comes with an agreement to turn the first-floor cafe into a restaurant and replace auditorium seats with cocktail tables and chairs. Food and beverage service would be added to the performance space’s nightly offerings.
Speaking about the “attractive revenue stream” the new leaseholder would provide, trustee Ron Profili said ongoing discussions on the future of the Opera House led fellow board members to the conclusion “this is the only way we think we can do it.”
Members were informed the board “hopes to have the lease (with City Winery owner Michael Dorf) signed within the next two weeks.”
They were also told City Winery’s success depends on its ability to attract a lot more tourist dollars than the small Opera House staff has been able to do to date.
With operations in both New York and Chicago, City Winery books mostly acoustic talent in the pop, folk, jazz and world music veins, similar to what the Opera House offers today. It also promotes wine as a preferred beverage to patrons in both its restaurants and showrooms.
With 10 years of experience behind them, members of the Opera House board concluded “the economics of a standalone theater are unsustainable,” Almeida told the assembly. “Ask George Altamura what kind of check he writes to keep the Uptown (Theatre) open. This is the best path forward to preserve the Opera House for future generations.”
Not everyone was happy about the proposed changes. Michael Savage, who served as general manager when the restored Opera House opened its doors a decade ago, said he was “sad to see this renovation take place,” particularly the removal of the theater’s raked floor.
Savage maintained there “are too many theater seats in the valley ... I’m not sure this model addresses that. What happens if (City Winery) can’t attract (a meaningful percentage of the 2.8 million tourists coming to downtown Napa annually)?”
Almeida said it’s important for venues like the Opera House to work with “lodging properties — to educate concierge staff about what the Opera House is offering. To do that, an investment in staff is needed. We don’t have it, they do.” He estimated 300 Opera House shows could “bring 67,000 patrons to downtown Napa ... a boon to downtown business.”
Napa resident Jim Keolker expressed concern that ambient restaurant noise will bleed through the floor into the upstairs performance space. He suggested the new operator adopt a model that would have ticketholders dining and then going en masse into the showroom — that no second seating take place in the restaurant while the show is on. He and Almeida disagreed about whether outside noise can be heard in the performance space today.
One of the attendees said he liked the Opera House as is but “won’t be coming to a supper club in this building. I don’t want to eat or drink when I’m watching a performance.”
Artistic director Peter Williams, who helped run Yoshi’s in Oakland and San Francisco for a number of years, said the City Winery model is quite like Yoshi’s. “I can assure you Yoshi’s is a listening room,” he said in an attempt to counter fears about tangential clatter.
Former Napa Valley Symphony Association president Mike Enfield called the Opera House board’s proposal “an aggressive move ... even though it may break our hearts to do it.”
Nuts and bolts
Once contracts are signed, a new banner will fly outside the building at 1030 Main St. in downtown Napa. It will read The City Winery at the Historic Napa Valley Opera House. The second-story space will remain the Margrit Biever Mondavi Theater and those who donated money for naming rights on theater seats will have those names transferred to tables and chairs in the new cabaret space.
The sublease with Michael Dorf has a 10-year term, with an option for a five-year renewal. Dorf is planning to spend $2.3 million in upgrades, all of which have to be approved by city and state officials.
Renovations include converting the first-floor cafe to a restaurant that will serve lunch and dinner daily, along with patio seating on a riverwalk, plus an expanded kitchen. Upstairs, a flat floor will replace the current raked floor, so table seating can be installed. Theater seating will remain in the balcony, with small tables installed between seats. Seating capacity will be reduced from 485 to 300. The orchestra pit will be lost to food and beverage service and there will be substantial upgrades to both sound and lighting systems.
City Winery will pay a base rent starting in 2015, plus 10 percent of gross revenue above $6 million and all operating costs. It will continue to collect a $3 historic preservation fee for every ticket sold, with projections that fund will accumulate some $200,000 annually.
In order to fund operations in 2014, the Opera House board needs to raise $150,000, an amount that will be matched by a single donor, with the board also tapping into a $100,000 security deposit.
Once contracts are signed and permits received, the present plan is for work to begin on first-floor renovations in late November following the Napa Valley Film Festival. The Opera House would go dark on Jan. 1 and re-open in March or April, according to Almeida.
The lease with City Winery calls for 300 shows to be staged at the Opera House each year, 75 of which would be booked by Opera House staff. The Opera House has asked City Winery to make the facility available for the Tuesday night film series conducted by movie buff Richard Miami and on Sundays for a variety of community programs. Longer runs requiring consecutive days — as needed by local theater groups — will be negotiated.
The Napa Valley Opera House, which opened in 1880, closed in 1914, a victim of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the demise of vaudeville and the advent of films. A community effort, which began in the 1970s, saved the building from being torn down and raised funds for its restoration. The renovated Opera House reopened in 2003.