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Opera House Emerges From The Darkness

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Dan Casey, executive director of the Barre Opera House, on the opera house’s stage. Photo by Tom Brown.

The ghost light at the Barre Opera House is once again sharing the stage with more terrestrial activities following the second-longest blackout in the history of the iconic venue that opened in 1899.

In the theatrical tradition of keeping the light on for you, the bare bulb that glares center stage while the hall is dark — along with any related spirits — had the place to themselves during the lengthy COVID-19 pandemic. It was the longest hiatus since the venerable performing arts space closed for 38 years near the end of World War II.

A modernized lighting system, new orchestra-level seating, electrical and HVAC upgrades, a fresh coat of paint, and a beautifully reproduced curtain depicting the Grand Canal in Venice greeted patrons last month as Tom Rush reversed the darkness in the Opera House’s return. The renovation also created a kitchen space that will allow the Opera House to offer alcohol without using an outside caterer, should the board decide to do that.

Opera House Director Dan Casey and the board’s renovation committee used the dire pandemic situation to expand and carry out a $1.2 million rehab project to celebrate its second century of operation.

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The reopening crowd was short of what might have been expected before the COVID scourge, but Casey was nonetheless pleased to see bodies back in the 440 new, $175,000 seats.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time (to get people back),” Casey said. “But we’re doing everything we can on our end to make it safe for people and we hope they have confidence that we will continue to do so.”

Safety was a key goal in the lighting and electrical upgrades, Casey said. 

“Before we were a ‘hemp house,’ which is kind of a rarity,” Casey said. “So one of the things we did was install mechanical winches in place of the old (rope) pulleys and sand bags. Creating a safer Opera House was one of the major goals of this capital campaign.”

The improvements will facilitate the bigger and heavier loads that some acts require these days. 

Although not part of the original renovation plan, the replication of the Grand Canal mural that had graced the stage in 1899 is now a focal point, thanks to an anonymous local benefactor. 

The graceful scene of Venice’s main “street” was first colorized from a black-and-white photo by former Vermont artist Peter Miller and then hand-painted by artists at Cobalt Studios in White Lake, New York. The watercolor-like mural recalls the origin of the Opera House and harkens to Barre’s Italian-American heritage.

Casey says he became a full-time grant-writer during the pandemic, employing corporate and individual donations, family foundation grants, and COVID relief money to fund the renovation. He credits committee members Karen Lauzon, David Sanguinetti, Patty Meriam, and Bob Pope for keeping the project moving.

“We fought for everything we could get our hands on,” he said, citing National Life, Vermont Mutual, the Vermont Arts Council, and others for contributing. The project also benefited from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program passed by Congress in late 2020 to help arts organizations survive the pandemic.

The Opera House season continues Oct. 10 with pianist Alison Bruce Cerutti, and while the 2021–22 season includes fewer dates than usual, that number could change, Casey said. 

Guests for the time being are required to wear masks while inside the building and must show proof of vaccination or have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before the performance.

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra is expected to resume its annual holiday performance this season, although that is not set in stone. The Green Mountain Nutcracker ballet also might return for the holidays, he said.

With a spiffy new space, Casey said he hopes a local arts group in the mold of the former Barre Players will step in to once again provide community theater.

“This is a stage that is waiting for another group to emerge to do a couple of productions a year,” he said. “We’ve put feelers out there.”

Either way, the ghost light will be on stage to keep the darkness away.