Rarely a week goes by that I don’t get asked the question: “What’s happening at the Opera House?” This can occur at a dinner with friends, in my swimming aerobics classes, in a casual setting where I might run into someone who thinks I look vaguely familiar, or in conversations with those who share a love of the arts.
My answer is usually short and vague: “I’m not really sure.”
It’s been almost seven years since I served for six-and-a-half years as executive and artistic director for the nonprofit organization, Napa Valley Opera House, often referred to as “NVOH.” I arrived a year after renovation was 99 percent complete, thanks to decades of dedicated and persistent fundraising by donors, boards of trustees and residents.
The NVOH mission was succinct: “To enrich the cultural experience of a diverse community offering distinctive performing arts while preserving a unique historic theatre.”
It was a privilege to take charge of this incredible building and bring the arts back to life in downtown Napa. Most rewarding was having the opportunity to share this architectural jewel — and its extraordinary history — with hundreds of performing artists and audience members living in and outside of the Napa Valley.
I’ll admit that sustaining the Opera House as a nonprofit entity is, indeed, a conundrum. On the one hand, the costs of operations, staffing, programming and upkeep are, like ownership of any theatrical venue, constant and always rising.
On the other hand, if the community does not embrace or connect to the value of having this cultural gem in its midst, lack of earned and contributed revenue will ultimately fail to close the gap required for sound financial security.
When I get queried about the status of NVOH, I now ask a few questions of my inquisitors: “Did you frequent City Winery”? “Do you attend shows at Blue Note”?
More often than not, the response is “No, because there’s rarely a show I want to see.”
This brings me to my own personal gloom about the state of NVOH today, exacerbated by the revelation that the building is up for sale for $5 million. NVOH board of trustee member Cass Walker explained that if sold, funds from the sale would enrich an endowment used to help subsidize community programming on the second floor.
In addition, Walker is casting the net for potential partners who could commit to a series of programs over an extended period of time (e.g. films, authors, lectures, meetings, small theater companies, bands who formerly played Silo’s, etc.). How these events would intersect upstairs with current tenant Blue Note’s nightly programs downstairs is yet to be determined.
“Trying to do the right thing is never easy,” Walker said. “It never is.”
Call me old fashioned, a purist or out of step with current realities, but when it comes to experiencing the performing arts, I want “my” Opera House, in the words of Barbra Streisand, “The Way We Were,” or everything new to be old again!
Should I win the lottery or receive an inheritance from a rich uncle (and buy the building), here’s my plan for NVOH:
Structurally, restore the venue to its 2003 renovated glory (and put a real Jewish deli in the downstairs restaurant); re-install the floor’s rake; re-install those plush comfy red seats; rebuild the stage so that there is a thrust once again; and re-hang the many plaques that pay tribute to those whose monetary contributions saved the original 1880 building from the wrecking ball.
Programmatically, revive a combination of a stellar presenting series — bringing artists who exemplify “distinctive performing arts” — and year-round opportunities for community rentals and special events (my youngest daughter, Maura, was married at NVOH).
An arts education program would be front and center, plus a community calendar of one-stop shopping for culture vultures would be created. NVOH could also be the site for a half-price ticket booth for day-of-show discounts for all programs at cultural and event venues throughout the Napa Valley.
Let’s bring the community of all ages back to their beloved Opera House. Gilbert and Sullivan would be most pleased.