Building to a Crescendo

Dallas Opera was once the toast of the nation. Now it is reaching for that high note again.

If Dallas Opera is lucky, by the end of the season it will have made a little more than $5,000 in profit.

But, as Opera News editor Patrick Smith insists, there is not one opera company in the country that makes any money--not in New York, not in San Francisco, not in Chicago, nowhere. Of all the performing arts, opera is simply the most labor-intensive, with all its enormous and grand detailed sets, the extravagant costumes, the men and women needed to create and shlep the sets. It's almost like hauling around the Rolling Stones' mammoth Voodoo Lounge tour each week to a different city, but with only a fraction of the budget.

"I don't know any opera company around the world that's made money in the last 50 years," Smith says. "Opera is the fastest way to go bankrupt you can imagine."

There is no discussing Dallas Opera without dealing with its home, the 70-year-old Music Hall in Fair Park--the site of so many triumphs, now a dilapidated building that has outlived its usefulness. For decades the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Opera, along with Dallas Summer Musicals and touring events, shared the Fair Park Music Hall, a beast of a building with the acoustics of a high-school auditorium.

The DSO and the Dallas Opera never kept secret their feelings about the Music Hall, and almost two decades ago both organizations requested the city provide for them new and improved performance spaces--more attractive structures with larger spaces, better sound, and greater flexibility.

The DSO got its wish, and in the early '80s planning began on a new symphony hall; the opera was told it would have to wait, but that it wouldn't have to wait long. But when the $84.5-million Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall opened in 1989--almost $35 million over budget--and the symphony abandoned the Music Hall for the Meyerson, the opera company still found itself without new digs.

The Meyerson was built as a showcase hall only for symphony--as well as jazz concerts, vocalists (like Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte, who have performed there), lectures, and graduation exercises. The Meyerson's small stage is equipped to accommodate 99 orchestra members, but the boomerang-shaped stage can't hold stage sets, and there is no provision for an orchestra pit.

The city's plans for the Arts District, which date back to a 1977 study--"A Comprehensive Arts Facilities Plan for Dallas," prepared by Carr, Lynch Associates--have long included a multi-event, Kennedy Center-type space that would eventually house the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Black Dance Theater, and such now-defunct arts groups as Ballet Dallas and Allegro Dallas.

In the Carr study and others that followed, the issue of the Music Hall's inadequacies was raised. The 1984 "Dallas Arts District" report, done by Theatre Projects Consultants, Inc. out of New York (of which famed Broadway producer-director Hal Prince was vice president), noted several problems.

"The stage and backstage is very constrained for grand opera, and opera in repertoire is not possible," the report read, pointing out there is simply no room for enormous sets. "The hall is not ideal as it is too vast, and acoustics are not good for first-class opera."

In conclusion, the report warned that the Dallas Opera's growth and strength would be constrained if the city did not provide a first-class facility--one that must have "magic" and be "the deluxe salon of a great city," as Dallas Opera co-founder and artistic director Nicola Rescigno maintained then. TPC also estimated that a facility would cost the city $86.6 million--in 1984 dollars, or about $14 million less than some estimate it would cost to build such a hall now.

Nine years later, the Central Dallas Association--of which Karayanis and almost every influential officer of every arts organization, bank, real estate company, and big business in this town is a member--submitted a plan to the city titled, "A Future Vision for Downtown Dallas." They again called for a multipurpose arts facility--this time based on a 1989 study, "A Cultural Facilities Master Planning Process for the City of Dallas," that was adopted by the city council.

According to both plans, the multipurpose arts facility should include: a 1,200- to 2,000-seat "opera facility" that would be home to Dallas Opera and local dance organizations; a 700- to 900-seat theater to serve as the Dallas Theater Center's Arts District Theater; a 300- to 500-seat theater for "music, dance, and drama"; and other smaller theaters and multipurpose exhibition halls and galleries.

The Central Dallas Association also noted that such a facility should be built within the next "0-2 years." That would have been two years ago.

Constrained by the Music Hall, yet without a new home, the Dallas Opera experimented in 1984-85 with performances in the much smaller Majestic Theatre, which Karayanis and Rescigno agreed was "an ideal setting for chamber opera." The 1984 season was filled with ambitious productions that transcended the traditional Italian fare; foremost among the presentations was Virgil Thompson's history of 19th century America, The Mother of Us All, which featured a libretto by Gertrude Stein. But despite the critical acclaim for its scope and ambition, the spring season at the Majestic fared poorly financially and was ditched.

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