Art Notes: Lebanon Opera House to close for renovations ahead of 100th birthday

Executive Director Joe Clifford sits in the theater of the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. The opera house will close for five months starting on August 14 to undergo a $3.1 million renovation that includes adding concessions and an updated ticket booth, as well as replacing the theater seats and updating decor. “I think of it as a facelift,” Clifford said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Executive Director Joe Clifford sits in the theater of the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. The opera house will close for five months starting on August 14 to undergo a $3.1 million renovation that includes adding concessions and an updated ticket booth, as well as replacing the theater seats and updating decor. “I think of it as a facelift,” Clifford said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Executive Director Joe Clifford points to a rendering of the new lobby on a board displaying fabrics and tiles that will be used in the upcoming renovation at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. Clifford said many design elements were inspired by Art Deco, which was popular when the opera house was built in 1924. “We’re going to honor the roots of the space,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Executive Director Joe Clifford points to a rendering of the new lobby on a board displaying fabrics and tiles that will be used in the upcoming renovation at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. Clifford said many design elements were inspired by Art Deco, which was popular when the opera house was built in 1924. “We’re going to honor the roots of the space,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-03-2023 11:36 PM

On Aug. 14, Lebanon Opera House will close down for five months of renovation in advance of the hall’s centenary next year.

The project, for which the nonprofit that runs the opera house plans to raise $4.2 million, is the first major update for the performance hall since 2001.

“All of this is in service to LOH’s centennial season,” said Joe Clifford, executive director of the opera house, adding that the anniversary has been on his mind since he started in the job in March 2017. “As early as 2019, I really started to convene the board to think about LOH’s future.”

The opera house will host an event from 4 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 9, to celebrate the impending work and to kick off the public phase of its capital campaign. Attendees will be able to walk around in the opera house from 4 to 6 p.m., and Clifford will talk about the project at 6 p.m.

The renovation project covers every inch of the opera house, which is at the heart of Lebanon City Hall. It includes improved lighting and signage facing Park Street, new flooring and paint and an improved ticket booth in the lobby.

The theater will get new flooring and new, wider seats with cupholders, a necessity for a theater adding concessions. The wider seats, and the removal of a row of balcony seats, to improve legroom, mean the space will go from its current 800 seats to 740, Clifford said. (That’s a reversal of the 2001 project, when the opera house seats were sent to a company in Michigan for refurbishing and 50 seats were added to bring the seating up to 800.)

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A key part of the project is converting the nearly 150 lights used for theater and music productions to LEDs, which have become the industry standard. The conversion also will enable a lighting designer to program a show from a tablet while sitting in the hall, instead of using a cumbersome lightboard.

Backstage, the green room, dressing room and kitchenette will be updated.

Overall, the building improvements are budgeted at about $3.1 million. The remaining $1.1 million of the capital campaign will cover the five months of revenue the opera house will lose while it’s closed and pay for a mobile unit — a sound system, lights and box office — that will enable more off-site events like last month’s Hootenanny at River Park, in West Lebanon.

Since the hall’s last update 22 years ago, the funding landscape for the arts has changed substantially. That renovation cost an estimated $1.7 million, with private fundraising expected to cover around $650,000. The city was on the hook for the rest.

This time around, the opera house will handle all of the funding, Clifford said. The nonprofit that runs the opera house last year signed a new 35-year lease with the city and is in it for the long haul.

“What I love about the corporation is that we’re in a state of maturity,” Clifford said.

Since it opened in 1924, the opera house has waxed and waned. It closed for six years before Ralph Bowie led an effort to reopen it in 1969.

“It went through these periods of really robust interest,” Clifford said. The coronavirus pandemic hit the opera house hard, but it’s come back with patrons and donors stronger than before. People recognize that without the opera house, downtown and the wider Upper Valley would look a lot different, Clifford said.

Groups that regularly use the opera house have had ample warning of the construction project, Clifford said. Revels North will take its annual winter production on the road to Brattleboro, Vt., Claremont and Mascoma Valley Regional High School. And Lebanon High School will move its theater production on campus.

The Aug. 9 event, called “Final Bow … For Now,” will furnish attendees with opportunities to check out the performance hall’s underpinnings, from the green room to the stage, where people are encouraged to take selfies. Clifford called it “just a chance for people to come in and wander.” Visitors to the free event can contribute to a time capsule and share memories of the opera house, meet opera house staff and board members and partake of light refreshments.

Barring anything unforeseen, always a possibility with construction projects, the opera house will reopen in February ready for the community to celebrate its 100th birthday and the next 100 years.

“This is our lasting legacy in this space,” Clifford said.

I’m Barnes, he’s Noble

The Upper Valley’s new neighborhood bookstore is coming not to a neighborhood near you but to Route 12A in West Lebanon, where people shop, but don’t live.

I’m looking forward to checking out the new Barnes & Noble, which will have a grand opening next Wednesday. Vermont fantasy and horror novelist Katherine Arden will cut the ribbon at 10 a.m. The breezy “about” page on Arden’s Penguin Random House website makes her sound like a hoot.

And on Aug. 13, Ernest Thompson, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for “On Golden Pond,” will appear with Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp, of Norwich. Thompson has a new novel out, “The Book of Maps,” and will sign copies at the 5 p.m. event.

Of course there are plenty of actual neighborhood bookstores in the Upper Valley, and one of the most prominent, the Norwich Bookstore, holds its annual 20% off anniversary sale on Saturday. You can subscribe to its calendar at norwichbookstore.com.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.