If These Walls Could Talk
Stately yet understated, historic yet rejuvenating, the Napa Valley Opera House has been one of Napa’s most important cultural icons since 1880.
Over that span, the Opera House has survived two great depressions, six wars, 26 U.S. presidents and countless floods of the Napa River and Creek. It endured the disappearance of the Berryessa Valley (thanks to the Monticello Dam in the 1950s), and the emergence of California’s wine industry. Over the course of the last two decades, it also sat at the center of an exhaustive revitalization of the city’s downtown.
Way back when, only years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Opera House opened with a glorious performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore. In the years that followed, the stage buzzed almost every night with events ranging from vaudeville acts to music concerts, plays to lectures.
All told, the Opera House certainly has welcomed its share of creative geniuses: singer Luisa Tetrazzini, author Jack London, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, actor/comedian Robin Williams, thespian Rita Moreno, musicians Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Steve Martin and many more.
Despite the star-power of these headlining acts, the Opera House has been perhaps best known for its historic role as the epicenter of the local community. The facility has hosted numerous public meetings, high school graduations and political speeches. Even during its dormancy, an 89-year period that stretched from 1914 into the 21st Century, the Opera House served as a de facto local business incubator, helping a handful of family-owned enterprises stay afloat.
After a $13-million renovation in the 1990s, the Napa Valley Opera House reopened better than ever in 2003. The institution remains a cornerstone of the Napa community today.
A House is Born
As the city of Napa began to grow between 1850 and 1870, local leaders recognized something very important was missing: a theater. A first was built in 1871, but it burned in a fire. In the years that followed, others tried to build a new theater, but were thwarted by local politics. Finally, in 1879, a wealthy farmer named G.W. Crowey bankrolled the development of a grand place to watch live performances. Originally called Crowey’s Opera House, the facility became known as the Napa Opera House, and officially opened with a gala ball on January 9, 1880. A large storm occurred that evening and as a result, only about 150 guests attended the ball, which lasted until the early hours of the next day and featured a San Francisco-based orchestra, dancing, elegant decorations and an elaborate meal in what is now the Café Theatre.
To call the brick structure “grand” would have been an understatement.
Ira Gilchrist, the same local architect who designed the Napa Court House, designed the Opera House in Italianate style, making it look from the outside as if it were transported straight from the streets of Rome. Inside, the Opera House featured an illustrated curtain (depicting the Bay of Naples in Italy), a painted proscenium and a majestic, stained-glass skylight. A spectacular curved staircase led to an intimate balcony with a curved façade. Brass chandeliers hung strategically from the ceiling.
The building itself was somewhat of a rarity; instead of erecting the stage on ground level, Gilchrist built it on the second and third floors, leaving the lower floor for retail shops and restaurants. Another anomaly: the auditorium was constructed with a flat floor instead of a typically inclined one, making it easier to accommodate local dances and pageants.
Patrons on the main floor sat in wrought iron settees while those in the gallery, which was inclined, sat on long wooden benches. Serving a dual purpose, box seats were constructed on both sides of the stage. During theatrical productions they served as doorways for actors to enter and exit the stage from the wings. However, during dances and other more social functions, the two boxes could be rented at a premium price so that well-to-do Napans could sit there to see and to be seen by others.
The Napa Hotel, located on the corner of Main and First Streets, often housed Opera House performers. An enclosed walkway constructed on the outside rear of the building connected the Napa Hotel’s second floor with a door behind the stage. In this way a performer staying at the hotel could change into his or her costume at the hotel and cross into the theater unseen.
The Grand Opening at the Napa Opera House took place on February 13, 1880, with a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Not surprisingly, the performance met with rave reviews. A new era of Napa theater had begun.
The Early Years
The Opera House flourished during its early years, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 1,300 from all over the San Francisco Bay Area.
Some nights, they came to hear the Napa Orchestral Society; other nights, they came for lectures about the local wheat industry (Napa was once known as the “bread basket” of California), or life at San Quentin Prison. There were boxing bouts, minstrel shows and vaudeville acts which comprised any number of dancers, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, monologists, hypnotists and acting troupes. An annual masquerade ball was also held, offering “elegant prizes” for participants.
Charles Levansaler was the man behind most of these performances. The Maine native took over as manager a few months after the Opera House opened, and served in that position for the better part of 19 years. He established contacts with booking agents throughout the west and brought all sorts of entertainment to Napa.
Levansaler signed John Phillip Souza to bring his famous brass band to the Napa Opera House in 1896. The wildly famous Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini performed here as well, following her 1905 debut in San Francisco. In 1884 the first heavyweight boxing champion of the world, John L. Sullivan, fought an exhibition match in a specially constructed ring on the main floor of the Opera House. And, it is reported that author Jack London read from the Opera House stage.
Historians love to speculate about those who may have been in the crowds at some of these early shows. Being the only important theater in the Napa Valley, the Opera House must have attracted a fair share of these well-to-do vacationers looking for diversion and amusement. Local celebrities such as writer Robert Louis Stevenson and actress Lilly Langtree very well could have visited on occasion, descending on the Opera House from the hinterlands for a much-deserved night on the town.
Spotlight on a Curtain
Hundreds of relics remain from the early days of the Napa Opera House, but none piques the imagination quite as sharply as this hand-painted advertorial curtain (photo at right by Robb McDonough, click for larger image). Judging from some of the ads themselves, experts at the Napa County Historical Society believe the curtain dates back to the early part of the 20th Century. Though not the main curtain, this one was used between acts to showcase local businesses, including the Napa Business College, Palace Stables and American Bakery (offering thirty loaves of bread for $1). The curtain is only one half of a matching pair; the other panel has not been found.
On the Shelf
Under the leadership of Levansaler and Edward Hogan, the Opera House flourished into the 20th Century. Alas, this high-flying success was not to last forever.
Two developments in particular spelled trouble for the burgeoning theater: the great earthquake of 1906 and the rise in popularity of movies. Damage from the earthquake was short but sweet; the Opera House closed for just a few weeks before reopening after minor repairs. Silent pictures, on the other hand, wreaked far more damage. These movies were so new and revolutionary that audiences embraced them in droves. By 1910, most people preferred film to vaudeville.
Perhaps the final straw for the Napa Opera House came around 1912, when Pittsburg, Calif.-based entrepreneur David Solari opened the Empire Theatre, Napa’s first motion picture house. The Opera House might have been able to stay afloat if the Empire had shown only films, but shows at this new theater usually included live drama and comedy performances in addition to film. This meant that patrons could get twice as much for their entertainment dollar. In the face of this competition, the Napa Opera House closed in 1914.
At the time, many local leaders described the move as “temporary,” a momentary hiatus in the life of the popular cultural icon. Much to their surprise, however, the theater doors stayed closed for nearly 90 years, and the once-vibrant stage at the venerable Napa Opera House remained eerily dark.
Efforts to resuscitate the Napa Opera House began in earnest in the early 1970s. An Oakland developer named Frank Corsetti owned the facility at the time, and, desperate to get a return on his investment, Corsetti realized the property would be easier to unload if it were a vacant lot. As he explored possibilities for demolition, a group of concerned citizens banded together to save the building from the wrecking ball once and for all.
Their efforts culminated with listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, instrumented by Napa Valley citizens David and Kathleen Kernberger and Bruce Payne. Their efforts ensured that the structure could never be torn down or converted into an office building.
Additional protections came in the 1980s, when another group led by local artist Veronica di Rosa and historic preservationists John Whitridge and Thomas Thornley formed a non-profit group dubbed The Napa Valley Opera House, which raised enough funds to purchase the building from Corsetti. A successful capital campaign was then set into place and instrumented by Bill Kieschnick.
In 1984 the group hired an architectural firm and a general contractor to engineer improvements, and 12 years later in 1996 the façade was restored.
The following year, vintner and philanthropist Robert Mondavi and his wife Margrit Biever Mondavi earmarked matching funds of two million dollars for the restoration. Under the Board leadership of Bill Kieschnick, the organization raised the matching $2 million in less than one year, prompting Mondavi to kick in another $200,000 for good measure.
Subsequent funding came from other Opera House sources, including the Napa Valley Opera House League, the Light the Lights Community Campaign and Studio 1030. With a total of $13 million in capital, the new design for the Opera House was completed in 2001; construction on the current facility began shortly thereafter.
That’s when Michael Savage got involved. Savage was hired as Executive Director. His task: To take the reins and steer the Opera House into Version 2.0.
“This was no easy task,” says Savage, who served as the organization’s leader from 2000 to 2004. “If you consider that the original theater was designed to seat 1,300 people—nearly one quarter of the population of Napa—you get a sense of what a big deal to the community the Opera House always has been.”
Because of this history, the group was determined to keep as faithfully as possible to the original design, varying from it only when prompted by current safety concerns or technical developments. Some of the obvious improvements: eliminating an ugly metal fire escape from the front of the building, eliminating the raked stage, adding a rake (or slope) to seating inside, shrinking seating to achieve the desired capacity of 500.
The group also made sure the project added features that had not previously existed: second floor dressing rooms, and restrooms (especially women’s) and a kitchen and Café Theatrereplaced the 19th century first floor commercial spaces.
“With the balcony’s balustrade and its curving staircase, the proscenium, the brick walls, and more, the building still has many of its original parts” says Board trustee Penelope Brault,
During latter stages of the reconstruction, even though the rear wall of the theater was missing (audience members could see straight out to the eastern hills) the Opera House held two fundraising concerts in the half-completed building: a “Hard-Hat Concert” and a “Construction Concert.” Savage persuaded former colleagues from the opera world to donate their services, and remembers each show for different reasons.
At the first, renowned mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood sang the Habanera from Carmen, during which she came down into the audience and sat on Robert Mondavi's lap. At the second concert, German baritone Franz Grundheber, stood on a chair at the downstairs reception after the show and personally raised $50,000 toward the project costs.
“Even then, when nothing about the future was completely certain, we knew this would be a special place,” Savage remembers.
A New Chapter
After years of earthquake retrofitting and exhaustive rehabilitation, the second iteration of the Napa Opera House—formally dubbed the Napa Valley Opera House—opened its doors again in 2002. With construction continuing on the main theater upstairs, jazz singer Dianne Reeves inaugurated the renovated downstairs Café Theatre with a rousing performance that June.
The main stage (renamed the Margrit Biever Mondavi Theatre) reopened with a gala performance starring Rita Moreno on Aug. 1, 2003. Later that same week, the first ensemble performance was H.M.S. Pinafore, just as it was on opening night in 1880.
An intimate house with a seating capacity of 450, the Opera House has re-established itself as the cornerstone of the cultural scene in downtown Napa—a vibrant community that now includes movie theaters, cafés, world-class restaurants and art galleries.
In 2010, the Opera House presented a year-long celebration of 130 years of imagination, renovation and artistic excellence.
From Jack London to Steve Martin, John Philip Sousa to Wynton Marsalis, Luisa Tetrazzini to Joan Baez, the Napa Valley Opera House has held audiences enthralled by legends of their time. Singers, musicians, writers, dancers, actors and speakers have graced the stage since the doors opened.
Much of this text derives from an editorial written in 2013, which celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Opera House’s re-opening. Click here to read the original article.