Thursday, July 1, 2010

Opera Theater Oregon wants to Guild the lily

By Barry Johnson

Very early adopters of Portland Arts Watch may remember that we are interested in a medium-sized, acoustically delicious concert hall, maybe 400-600 seats or so. It makes sense: lots of Portland music groups -- classical, jazz, acoustic pop, bluegrass, etc. -- would use such a hall, and when we asked several of the classical ones about it, they unanimously voted for the idea. Of course, we were also thinking about something that might cost, oh, $30 million or so, new. We considered the whole thing to be imaginary, if not fevered.

So, imagine the surprise when we read David Stabler's post this morning (via Suzi Steffen).  Opera Theater Oregon, the story said, was in negotiations with the owner of the Guild Theater building, Tom Moyer's TMT Development, to take over the ancient movie house that fronts the new Director Park in Southwest Portland.  We had to talk to Katie Taylor, artistic director of OTO, to confirm Stabler's account (that's a joke -- Mr. Stabler and I worked together for more than 20 years) and discuss the idea a little further.

Although I remember the Guild as a bit on the dingy side and unfortunately "remodeled" back in the days when remodeling wasn't the art form it is today, Taylor assured me that the theater is structurally sound and acoustically acute. She's assembling a pro bono team of designers and engineers to work on the project, and the early commitment of one of them, KPFF Consulting Engineers, helped convince Moyer's company to consider a proposal from OTO. Right now, the idea is take out a row or two of seats, lower and widen the stage, move the screen back (or make it retractable) and deal with the bathroom issues of the Guild, which I remember as being fairly acute.

Basically, the deal she hopes to close involves raising the money for a renovation and then getting TMT Development to accept the renovation in lieu of rent. How much are we talking about? Around $300,000, Taylor said, not counting all the donated work. Which is about one cent on the dollar compared to MY proposal. It almost sounds do-able!

Taylor has some other performing arts partners on board already, including Filmusik (which applies new scores to old films and performs them live) and Electric Opera Company (which puts old operas in new musical contexts, such as a post-punk revival of Rossini's "Barber of Bridgetown"), and she's been talking to all sorts of other possible renters/collaborators/partners, all of whom are interested in getting involved.  That's a good thing, because it should make both fundraising and establishing a steady revenue stream much easier. When Taylor looks at the future of the arts, she says, "I think it's all going to be about collaborations."

The first hurdle is Aug. 10, when the formal proposal is due to TMT Development. Taylor has to have an architect on board by then and a convincing case.

The Guild has lots of advantages for such a proposal. It's downtown and could use Director Park as an outdoor lobby. It seats a little more than 400, which many groups would find manageable, and that price tag is reasonable.  And the park could use another active business on the block.  We also have a soft spot for the mission of Opera Theater Oregon -- to marry classical and popular art forms. Fortunately, we aren't alone. You could argue that Portland's music scene is distinguished by that theme, from the cellos and violins that pop up in our indie bands to the musical genre hopping by the likes of 3 Leg Torso, Pink Martini, Portland Cello Project, Vagabond Opera and many others. Finally, the Guild hasn't exactly been demand the past five years or so. Here's an excellent chance to put it back to work.

So, for now, we're going to mothball our proposal for a brand new $30 million palace for the acoustic arts. We'll see how Taylor's idea plays out first. How's she doing with such a big deal on the horizon? "I'm very potentially excited." Portland Arts Watch is, too.

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