I'm responding to Evy Warshawski’s piece about the Napa Valley Opera House - blame the holidays for the delay (“The Arts Landscape: 'What’s happening at the Opera House,” Dec. 12).
I wholeheartedly agree with Evy's suggestions about the importance of restoring the beautiful old building and community asset to its 2003 glory and I have some thoughts about what could make running the theater' more sustainable.
Those of us involved in the 2000s restoration took great pains to follow the original 1879 design, and tried to improve upon it with modern technical innovations wherever feasible and permitted. The State Historic Preservation Officer encouraged us and kept a close eye on the project throughout. We also employed an outstanding acoustician, Lawrence Kirkegaard of Chicago (Google his credentials.)
It was a tragedy for the theater and for all of us involved in that careful restoration, to see the experts' advice willfully ignored. Particularly upsetting was the removal of the raked floor and the ignorant destruction of Mr. Kirkegaard's carefully designed sound envelope by punching a hole between the downstairs and main performance floors, thus allowing the kitchen's sounds and smells to invade the performance area and destroy his vital acoustic plan.
Napa County is oversupplied with theater seats and it is hard to make economic sense of running a small venue here. But the solution doesn’t lie in putting on more and more shows (as appears to have been the board's plan in the period leading up to the City Winery deal) in a desperate effort to defy the laws of economics. There is no magic formula dictating that the theater mount shows on every (or even most) days of the year.
For example, San Francisco Opera stages performances only around 54 days a year, which is fine with everyone.
I suggest that we ask the city and/or county of Napa to cover the minimal overhead costs of running this invaluable community asset (e.g. property taxes) and look to each show only to cover its own variable costs. If a show can't cover its own running expenses, we shouldn't book it.
Six years ago, I was asked to return to NVOH and present an opera series, not the most marketable product, but right up my alley. I made a few phone calls and within a week or so, had secured promises of support of more than $53,000 from generous local sponsors. Only then did we commit to it.
The resulting short opera series included a brilliant production of Verdi’s “Traviata” staged by Livermore Valley Opera. It was a huge success, and after that and another double bill (Mozart/Samuel Barber), we had spent only about 40 percent of our pledged funding. We would have continued with further productions of a similar kind without having to seek additional funding but at that point NVOH's board struck the deal with City Winery of New York, which required the theater's evisceration (for example, removing the orchestra pit), rendering further opera productions impracticable. So we returned all the unused funds to our generous sponsors.
I believe this formula (booking shows after and not before they have sponsors) could apply to other forms of the performing arts, which have support in the community. And if they don't, then why would we be doing them? The idea would be not to present a show at NVOH until funding to cover that show’s running costs was secured. In effect, ticket sales from each show could then be applied to the running costs of the next show.
This plan, of course, would not cover the theater's fixed costs. But if each event can be self-sustaining, then the Napa community will surely stand up and support the fixed costs of operating this historic venue and jewel of a theater. I believe it would be quite reasonable to seek city (and or county) support to cover its fixed costs (e.g. utilities, real estate taxes) in much the same way as I understand the Hutchins Street Theater has had vital support from the city of Lodi.
Michael J. Savage
Editor's note: the author is formerly managing director of the San Francisco Opera, executive director of the Napa Valley Opera House, and executive director of the Lincoln Theater in Yountville.