This summer I visited four old-time opera houses in three different states. All are in current use: the Stoughton Opera House in Stoughton, WI (1901), is a venue for live musical events by visiting artists; the Grand Opera House in Dubuque, IA (1890), presents musicals produced by a local theatre troupe; the Metropolitan Opera House in Iowa Falls, IA (1899), is a movie theater; and the Reed Opera House in Salem, OR (1870), the oldest of the group, houses small businesses and boutiques, with a rentable reception space on the top floor.
Old opera houses were far from my mind as I drove down I-94, passing Madison on my way to the Illinois Chamber Music Festival in Bloomington, Illinois. Discovering the abandoned Ashland Opera House in northern Wisconsin had been a highlight of summer 2022, and the marker for the Stoughton Opera House, appearing unexpectedly a few miles south of Madison, was the trigger I needed for a spontaneous westward detour. As I learned last year, the continued existence of these local bastions of culture is in itself a cause for celebration. I took the exit toward Stoughton, nestled among the rolling hills to the west.
Parking at the old train station, now home to the local historical society, I walked up Main Street with an eye out for the opera house’s prominent clock tower. Before I reached it, the expansive windowed frontage of Grand Inspired caught my attention and drew me in.
Devoted exclusively to art and objects made of wood, the Grand Inspired comprises an extensive gallery, a well-equipped makers’ space, and high-ceilinged artist studios. Owner Joanne Grassman graciously guided me, extolling the virtues of woodwork with authority and enthusiasm. For a very reasonable monthly fee, anyone can become a member and use the makers’ space 24/7. The idea that, thanks to Grand Inspired’s regular one-day classes, I too might create with wood piqued my interest. I have always been fond of the particular confluence of beauty and practicality, of artistry and craftwork, in wooden boxes, and the gallery had a number of outstanding examples, among which the Japanese-inspired tea boxes of Jorge Gonzalez, with the colorful geometric intricacy of their expertly executed tops and sides, really captured my imagination.
Exhilarated, I continued up Main Street. The 600-seat opera house opened in 1901, functioning as a live-events venue for a half-century before falling into disrepair. In the 1980s the locally-funded “Friends of the Opera House” restored the building, including reconstruction of the clock tower, which had been removed in the 1960s due to safety concerns. The auditorium itself is on the second and third floors of what was originally the city hall, and the first floor is now home to a piano bar featuring creatively repurposed piano parts and a lounge replete with a corner stage for pre-show entertainment. The Stoughton opera house is now a vibrant, state-of-the-art performance space, hosting a full complement of events by visiting musicians each season. When I stopped by, the staff was hard at work finalizing the 2023-4 schedule, but director William Brehm kindly showed me the downstairs spaces and let me wander upstairs on my own. The auditorium lights were off, so my iPhone’s night photo settings came in handy to help me “see” some of the many period details, including the original gas/electric chandelier, oak floors, and stage curtain.
Following the festival itself in Bloomington, where I had the absolute pleasure of working with student chamber groups and performing works by Schubert, Dohnanyi, and Franck in a moving musical reunion with the dear colleagues of past summers there, I set out for the Twin Cities along a different route that took me through Dubuque and Iowa Falls. This time I chose my stops expressly for the extant opera houses located there. The Grand Opera House on 8th street in Dubuque was built to a Richardsonian Romanesque design by Chicago architect Willoughby Edbrooke, who also designed the US Treasury building in Washington DC. Opening on August 14, 1890, it originally had 1,100 seats, with two balconies and eight boxes and stalls. After 38 years of live shows, it was remodeled as a movie palace in 1928. It closed briefly in 1985, before entering its current phase of operation as the home to the Barn Community Theatre’s musical productions. Thanks to hundreds of local donations, the building was restored (in 1998 and 2006) to its former glory. While the second balcony and boxes have not been reconstructed, the orchestra pit is back. In 2010 a glass elevator was added, and the Dubuque Academy of Ballet moved in on the third and fourth floors. All sets, like the ones for the run of Peter Pan that finishes today, are built directly on stage.
The Metropolitan Opera House, a Renaissance Revival style building on historic Washington Street in Iowa Falls, was closed when I arrived around lunch time, so I ate across the street at the quirky 502 Grill as I waited for a reply from the Met’s facebook page. Marina quickly got back to me and agreed to open the building for me and show me around. Designed by Saint Paul (MN) architects O’Meyer and Thori, the Met was built in 1899 and opened late that year. After thirty years of hosting primarily live events with visiting artists, from 1930 the house’s functions were divided between film projections and the live drama and dance productions of local schools such as Ellsworth College and Iowa Falls High School. After 1954, the Met stood out over the next two decades among the venues of the Iowa United Theatres movie theatre chain. Following a period of disuse, the Met was revitalized about twenty years ago at the initiative of new owner Bob Fridley. Due to structural concerns, he had to divide the auditorium down the middle, creating two separate spaces and supporting the sagging roof. Running the entire width of the building, the unused third-floor ballroom is in an unrestored, close-to-original state—close because air-conditioning pipes now run vertically directly in front of the central raised area where the dance orchestra once played. With the help of a flashlight, Marina also showed me the area—now an insulated attic space—where the boxes of the original 800-seat auditorium were located. The mural that once decorated the ceiling in front of the stage now graces one of the lobby walls. Used exclusively as a movie theatre, the Met offers one show a day and focuses on new releases: Oppenheimer is the current offering.
While vacationing with family on the Oregon coast last week, I made a side trip to Salem, the state capital, to see the Reed Opera House in the city’s historic downtown. As I made my way on foot from the riverside park, where a volunteer team was at work on new additions to the century-old carousel, I passed Capitol Tower and a colorful corner building dating from 1891. The Reed is older, having opened in September 1870. It is named after Cyrus Reed, a state legislator and Civil War general, who built it to G. W. Rhodes’ design after the state government backed out of its proposal to have Reed build a structure that was to have housed the state supreme court, library, and other administrative branches. With shops on the ground floor, the 1,500-seat opera house on the 2nd and 3rd floors, and a hotel, the Reed hosted visiting theatre and musical groups and also political events, notably an appearance by Susan B. Anthony in support of women’s suffrage. At the turn of the twentieth century, a new owner converted the building into Salem’s first department store, and Reed retained this function through the mid-1970s, when it was remodeled to house the smaller retail and office spaces that populate the building to this day. The current owner, Roger Yost, bought the Reed in 2003. He has restored the third-floor ballroom (this year voted best wedding venue in the Willamette valley), modernized the elevators, and returned the Italianate exterior pediment, corona, and brackets to their original look.