By Emily Kaminsky-
Thirty-five years ago, the Barre Opera House was a liability. Forlorn and dilapidated, the historic theater, built in 1899, stood in dire need of rescue. After serving as a performance space, it became a movie theater in the 30s and early 40s. In 1944 it closed. In 1982 it returned from the dead—thanks to the hard work of community members who raised a million dollars to turn it into what it is today: an outstanding performing arts venue.
With 650 seats—less than half the capacity of Burlington’s Flynn Theater—the Barre Opera House offers an intimate and attractive performance experience. “We sold 23,000 tickets last year,” says Patty Meriam, who chairs the opera house’s board of directors. “That’s a lot of feet through a historic theater.”
That’s good news, but the opera house, which operates as a nonprofit corporation with paid memberships, is facing some challenges. There are 200 members, down from the usual 250 of recent years, and way down from the 400 typical in the 90s. The board is seeking more members in order to help fund operations and much-needed repairs.
“People may think we’re doing just fine, and that we don’t need their help,” says Meriam. Dan Casey, the nonprofit’s executive director, explains that many early members could remember what it was like to not have an opera house at all. They brought the building back to life with their own energy and effort, whether by repainting the interior or clearing out the pigeon droppings. “Thirty years later, we really need to be at the forefront of people’s minds. We need continued support from the community both as members and ticket buyers,” says Meriam.
Memberships help the opera house fulfill its organizational mission, sustain operations, strengthen the community and, as the opera house’s literature puts it, “build a strong cultural legacy for future generations.” Benefits include early-bird ticket discounts, newsletters, invitations to special events and receptions like the annual October fundraising gala, and more.
As a nonprofit, the Barre Opera House is able to use grants for capital improvements, and many such infrastructure upgrades have been implemented in the last several years. Fire-code safety issues have been resolved. The stage curtains were recently repaired, cleaned and fireproofed. A new dance floor has been ordered, and, on the opera house’s Main Street facade, a light box will soon be installed behind the stained-glass window whose design serves as the opera house’s logo. While city code restricts the possibilities for a sign out front, signage in the back of the house, along Merchants Row, is an easier possibility, along with a plaza to give attendees more space to congregate before and after shows.
The 20-year-old addition to the back of the building meanwhile needs updating. Inside the opera house itself, the lobby carpet is due for replacement, and the walls haven’t seen a paintbrush since 1982.
With a bare bones staff of two full-time and two part-time employees, the opera house accomplishes a lot on a small budget while keeping prices low. Primarily, Casey explains, the organization rents out the space to groups, who use it for a great variety of purposes, but the opera house also puts on its own shows. Its Celebration Series and Barre Opera House Presents programs furnish no shortage of entertainment throughout the year. The establishment also offers theater workshops, a four-show student matinee series, and two summer camps—which were full this year.
The endeavor is prospering, but needs to keep the ball rolling. It’s for that reason that the board is seeking more community involvement—more memberships, that is. “Success can sometimes hurt you with membership drives,” explains Casey.
“We have been fiscally conservative,” he adds, but “just buying tickets doesn’t keep the doors open.”
Meriam says that Casey has a knack for predicting which artists are going to go big, and that on numerous occasions he has booked performers right before they become stars. “We want people to have confidence in our choices,” she says.
The lineup for this year’s Celebration Series looks strong. The series’ first three performers will be an ABBA tribute band, Arlo Guthrie, and comedian Steven Wright.
Individual memberships at a variety of price levels are available, as are business and corporate memberships as well as planned giving opportunities. For more information, go to www. barreoperahouse.org or call 802-476-8188.