Coming Home

Like gifted vagabonds, they’ve traipsed from stage to stage during the past few years with instruments, costumes and equipment in tow. They performed in just about any space that would have them, never stopping in any place long enough to call it home. 
Soon, for many of the city’s performing artists, that lifestyle will change. The Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts will open its doors to the public in January, three years and four months after floodwaters wrecked the theater and left its former occupants homeless. That same flood rendered several other major stages useless as well, including the grand old Orpheum Theater. 
Since Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans’ opera, symphony and ballet have performed in shared spaces around and beyond the city, as they struggled to keep their organizations alive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 
By all indications, the plucky groups didn’t merely survive. Their challenges appear to have made them stronger and better prepared to anchor New Orleans’ cultural community. 
Audiences soon will be able to judge for themselves during gala reopening concerts that will feature iconic tenor Placido Domingo, renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman and performances by members of the San Francisco and New York City
ballets. The New Orleans Opera Association, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the New Orleans Ballet Association plan to pull out the stops to demonstrate that the arts are alive in New Orleans.
“I think we feel like kids who just got the key to the candy store,” says Robert Lyall, artistic director of the New Orleans Opera Association. 
The performing arts theater had been the opera’s home since it first opened in 1972. After the 2005 flood, the association went shopping for temporary quarters and landed, primarily, in McAlister Auditorium on the Tulane University campus. The opera is grateful for Tulane’s help, but Lyall admits that setting up shop there was tough.
“Consider that you have a 60-member chorus, 65 in the orchestra and you’ve got a set designed for the Theater of Performing Arts stage. And suddenly you find yourself working on a stage a fourth that size, with an orchestra pit that seats half that number,” he says. “It’s been a learning process about producing.”
The opera adapted by doing simpler programs, with fewer performers and musicians, and less  of the elaborate scenery that characterizes operatic productions. “You do what you have to do to keep the flame burning,” Lyall says.
The memory of tough times may begin to fade quickly once the organization moves into its restored space. Lyall says the renovations are addressing the opera’s every need, creating an ample orchestra pit,  stage area and wing space, upgraded lighting grids, loading ramps and new dressing rooms for music, theater and dance.
“It is a hall that meets our needs technically,” Lyall says. He’s not the only excited artistic director in town.
“Being in the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for all of the season would affect us positively, musically and emotionally,” says Carlos Miguel Prieto, music  director and principal conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.  
The LPO will help inaugurate the theater in January, and will perform six more concerts there during the season.
“It is a real performance space, with good backstage and good audience space,” Prieto adds. Those are welcome benefits after bouncing around halls that are sparsely equipped for a philharmonic orchestra.
The LPO not only “toured” its programs to local university campuses after Katrina, but also carried them into churches in New Orleans, Kenner and even across the lake, in Covington.  Babs Moliere, managing director of the LPO, believes that reducing the number of stops on the orchestra’s route will mean a lot to its future.

“As much as we’ve been appreciative of the many venues that have been offered to us since the hurricane, the opportunity to be back on a professional stage, when you are a professional orchestra, is enormous,” she says.
Jenny Hamilton, executive director of the New Orleans Ballet Association, echoes the thought. The ballet, too, has been without a permanent home since the Mahalia Jackson Theatre closed. Like the opera, the ballet was forced to scale down its offerings and squeeze them onto stages not well equipped for the art.
“This opens up some incredible options for us, to be able to bring in work that we could not bring anywhere else,” Hamilton says of the theater’s reopening. This spring, the Houston Ballet will stage “a huge production” of “Marie,” the story of Marie Antoinette, at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre. And May will bring the spectacular, dare-devil production “Diavolo” to the stage. “This is the only stage in New Orleans that could accommodate ‘Diavolo,’ ” Hamilton says.
While the Mahalia Jackson Theatre renovation may open a new chapter for the local arts, no one pretends that it addresses all the needs of the performing arts community. 
The LPO, for instance, which called the Orpheum Theatre home for its 36-week seasons before Katrina, remains without a permanent, full-time home. The Orpheum, which was much more seriously damaged than the Theatre for the Performing Arts, remains shuttered, with no sign that it will be brought back to life anytime soon.
While the LPO has mounted several successful seasons as an “itinerant” orchestra, conductor Prieto would love to be able to rehearse and perform on a single, well-equipped stage once again. “The reason is that we can work on a sound week after week, which is impossible when one is moving constantly,” he says.
Prieto believes the Mahalia Jackson Theatre will offer some stability that will lift the musicians’ spirits and help to grow the audience. What’s unknown as yet is the acoustic quality of the new setting.
“Acoustics are a huge part of an orchestra’s sound and its impact on the audience. If the theater is good acoustically, and if the LPO is in the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for its Classical Subscriptions, it will be a huge morale boost for everyone,” Prieto says. 
Celebrity participation won’t hurt either. Itzhak Perlman, who loaned his name and extraordinary talent to benefit concerts for the LPO in the months after Katrina, will return on Jan. 10 to help celebrate the theater’s reopening. 
A week later, renowned tenor Domingo will return, in his first official visit since he performed a moving, March 2006 benefit for the opera. This time, he will not only perform with the opera — supported by the LPO and the New Orleans Opera Chorus — but will dedicate the Placido Domingo Stage in the renovated theatre. 
“I felt he did something very special for the city with that 2006 gala,” says the opera’s Lyall. “So I went to the City Council and asked if they would name the stage in honor of him.” •
For details of the January 2009 gala events, check these Web sites: www.neworleansopera.org, www.lpomusic.com and www.nobadance.com. •

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