Main Streets elegant Victorian may soon morph into a flapper, but the Napa Valley Opera House management said it believes the makeover could be a win-win for the historic building, the arts scene and Napa.

Peter Williams, artistic director of the Opera House, and Bob Almeida, president of its board of directors, met with the Napa Valley Register last week to discuss details of a plan they are negotiating with Michael Dorf, the founder and CEO of City Winery of New York and Chicago.

If a proposed lease goes forward, Dorf would create his third music venue in Napa. Plans call for a restaurant on the ground floor of the Opera House. In the upstairs theater, he would level the present raked floor and replace the rows of seats with tables and chairs, creating a cabaret atmosphere for patrons, who could order food, wine and spirits while watching shows. The balcony would remain, although some seats would be removed to install cocktail tables. The resulting capacity would be around 350, Almeida estimated, compared with the 500 seats the Opera House now has.

Almeida said the goal is to present 300 shows a year at the venue. Of these 75 would be community programing, which would be scheduled by Williams, including performances by school and local performing arts groups like Lucky Penny Productions, which recently staged Funny Girl at the Opera House.  

Almeida also stressed that no changes can be made to the facade or the stage of the Opera House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. City Winery would pay for all the renovations, and the 10-year lease would include a substantial deposit, to cover expenses of returning the venue to its current state, if it decided to pull out. The lease, he said, provide $200,000 a year for a nest egg for future maintenance and renewal of the building and systems.

The deal would allow the Opera House to present the community programing it has not been able to offer because of a lack of funding, Almeida said. In particular wed like to reach out to the Hispanic community of Napa, he said. Arts have a way of bringing people together in a community.

City Winery was coming to Napa

The City Winery formula has thrived in New York and Chicago, and it inspired Dorf to set his sights on Napa, which he got to know as he bought wine for his clubs.

City Winery was coming to Napa; it was only a question of where, said Almeida. They were very close to completing a transaction at another location when we first became aware of them. We quickly concluded that the market simply could not absorb another major venue and that City Winery and the Opera House could not coexist.

The Opera House, which opened in 1880, closed in 1914, a victim of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the demise of vaudeville and the advent of films. A community effort, which began in the 1970s, saved the building from being torn down and raised funds for its restoration. The renovated Opera House reopened in 2003.

In 2011, the city of Napa made a $1.5 million forgivable loan to the Opera House to pay its debts. At that time, the Historic Theater Napa Valley was established to own the Opera House as a way of protecting it from debt, including by tapping into the equity in the building for operating costs. HTNV is a 501(c)(3) which operates as a public charity whose purpose is not to make a profit, but rather to further civic purposes through its ownership of the building, explained David Mendelsohn, a member of the board. This group, in turn, leased the Opera House to the Napa Valley Opera House, as the operators of  the venue.

City Winery would, in turn, sublease the building from Napa Valley Opera House, but the Historic Theater Napa Valley board will need to approve the plan, Mendelsohn said.

The monthly nut

Making the monthly nut was always hard, said Evy Warshawski, who served as artistic director of the Napa Valley Opera House from 2004 to 2011. There are so many costs beyond trying to sell shows the sheer price of running a large building like the Opera House is, in itself, a challenge.

For many of the years I was there, the loan was always an albatross, and so much fundraising energy and donor dollars had to go for that on top of the usual expenses. I would guess that, despite all the dollars donated on an annual basis, making the monthly nut is still a challenge.

Fundraising has been going on for decades in our small community and limited donor base, she said. Donors get giving-burnout, and there are only so many pockets to pursue. Im not sure a nonprofit really is sustainable at the Opera House without a large endowment and where the heck is that going to spring from?

Weve hung in there for 10 years, Almeida said, but finances limited the scope of their programming and ability to get out the word about shows through advertising.

We have to serve two markets, the local community and our visitors, Almeida said, noting that while the Opera House has a strong core of local patrons drawn from all areas of the valley, about 50 percent of current ticket sales are from visitors. City Winery has the marketing expertise and budget to significantly expand that total.

Three-and-a-half-million visitors come to Napa Valley each year, he said. If just 10 percent of these came to a show, wed be in great shape.

I would guess that what City Winery does in the Opera House will be very, very cool, said Warshawski, who is now artistic director for Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons in Southern California. They wont do anything halfway, and, in all fairness, they have great taste in booking artists.

The disconnect, at least in the beginning, is going to be the transformation from a restored and special little theater to more of a wine/food emphasis with concerts upstairs. If it means the survival of this historic gem, then I guess so be it. I do wonder how it will mix with all the tasting rooms, restaurants, the Uptown Theatre and other established businesses already in place.

Im not even sure how having a for-profit in there will change things much, which is why I worry about the affordability of what a new cabaret might require to sustain itself, she added. Three hundred shows yikes, but if the restaurant is good, that should help.

It took years to build community for the Opera House, Warshawski said. Napa was one of the most challenging communities Ive lived in. We are not the demographic of New York or Chicago. Theres no critical mass for getting audiences to buy tickets to anything. My motto became assume nothing. … I truly give (Dorf) credit for taking a risk, for a real stretch in choosing Napa and maybe he would have had a better chance to make this work in San Francisco and for obviously convincing his investors that this is good move to make. We shall see, right?

Almeida said that he and Williams had been fielding questions and taking comments about the plans. Among those objecting is Paul Franson, a Napa writer who publishes an online weekly guide to activities and events.

A restaurant downstairs is fine, said Franson. That space is under-utilized. But leave (the theater) upstairs alone.

The solution Franson proposes is a subsidy from the city. He has been gathering support for a proposal to donate a portion of profits from wine sales in Napa restaurants to an Opera House fund.

Almeida said the most interesting comment came from a longtime Napan who wrote, Dont change the Opera House. I havent been there yet.

Change happens

Reviews will be necessary before the proposed changes can be implemented, said Juliana Inman, a member of the Napa City Council, as well as an architect and preservationist.

Not all change is bad, added Inman, who met with Williams and Almeida last week to learn details of the proposal. My concern is about doing things properly. Change happens, and its not a bad thing as long as you keep your focus on preserving the historic integrity of the building.

Inman said renovation plans would require building permits as well as approval through the Mills Act Property Tax Abatement Program of the California Office of Historic Preservation, which provides tax breaks for historic buildings.

One thing in (City Winerys) favor is that the building did originally have a flat floor, she said. It had a short life, but it was used for performances, dances, meetings. They would be returning it to the way it was when it was built.

A flat floor does open up other ways to use the space, she said. Sometimes flexibility is good.

The Club Fugazi in San Francisco, home to the long-running Beach Blanket Babylon revue, is an example of a flat-floor venue where patrons sit at tables, while others watch the show from a balcony.

Inman noted that there is a precedent for using a lease option to preserve a historic building. Napa County Landmarks, a local preservation group, is the owner of the historic First National Bank building on First Street, she said, and for years the group grappled with the challenge of a building that needed extensive renovations and earthquake retrofitting. It was a problem they solved by leasing the ground floor to Allegria restaurant, which now leases the entire building, while Landmarks shares office space with the Napa County Historical Society in Napas Goodman building.

We want the Opera House to succeed, she said. It provides a great service to the community and is an important underpinning in downtown. 

Knock em dead.

I wish them all the luck in the world, said Napa businessman George Altamura, who renovated Napas 1937 Uptown Theatre, restoring the building to its period splendor and reopening it as a venue for live music. I have nothing but love for (the Opera House). Whats good for them is good for me. I hope they knock em dead.

Theyre hurting; they need money, Altamura said, and that place is too important for Napa. We need it, period. No one has got one like it. I walk by and think, I love that place.

The Uptown, Altamura said, is his gift to Napa residents, and it requires his financial support. I keep it afloat, he said.

He said he keeps careful track of who is attending Uptown shows, and audiences are mostly out-of-towners whom he reaches through extensive advertising. I knew when I opened that Napa couldnt support the Uptown, he said. Times are hard. People dont have a lot of money. If everyone in Napa went to one show a year, Id be in velvet.

I hope no matter what they do, its successful, because the Opera House is for everyone. It belongs to everyone in Napa. No one else has anything like it.

Staying true to the concept

Although the transformed venue would be operated as the City Winery at the Napa Valley Opera House, Almeida said, the upstairs will continue to be known as the Margrit Biever Mondavi Theatre, as a tribute to Robert and Margrit Mondavi, who provided both aesthetic and financial support for Napa Valley Opera House restoration more than a decade ago.

Asked how she felt about the prospect of City Winery changing the look and giving the venue a more commercial bent, the world-renowned vintners widow said she supports the board of directors plans provided they dont stray too far from the original concept. I hope the Opera House remains a place for recitals, for wonderful musical and community events … that its focus is still on the performing arts.

She gave her blessing for the proposed new endeavor, so long as the performing arts dont take a back seat to restaurant and cabaret.

Register reporter L. Pierce Carson contributed to this report.

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