LOOKING FOR A HOME

The Dallas Opera wants to move uptown-quietly.

After 42 years in residence at the Music Hall at Fair Park, The Dallas Opera is in earnest search of a new abode. Just don’t call it an opera house.

“We call it the Lyric Theater, “explains John Dayton, chairman of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, a non-profit group organized to plan, promote and help finance the 2,400-seat hall, and the rest of an estimated $248 million worth of new performance spaces planned for the Dallas Arts District.

The distinction is not trivial.

“When you say ’opera house,’ it is too easy to assume you mean a hall just meant for The Dallas Opera, ” Dayton explains. “We ’re looking to design a hall that’ll serve a much broader base of organizations,”

Expressed another way. The Dallas Opera is carefully pushing a heavy rock up a very steep hill. “This is a very expensive building,” says a source closely connected to the project. “You can’t sell it by saying it’s only going to be for fat ladies singing in funny clothes.”

No one disputes the Music Hall’s inadequacy as an opera venue. But a new house devoted almost exclusively to grand opera the way, for example. The Metropolitan Opera is in New York, or La Scala is in Milan, simply won’t happen in Dallas.

A major reason is money. As now envisioned, the Lyric Theater would cost about $!40 million in 2001 dollars, says Dayton. One gauge of how difficult it can be to raise such a sum for the performing arts is the bumpy history of the Lyric Theater’s prospective Arts District neighbor, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. The I.M. Pei-designed structure survived several near-death experiences before it was finally completed for about $ 106 million in 1989.

The Opera’s other main concern is its image. The non-profit Center is determined to avoid the botched community relations effort that allowed The Mort to be seen as no more than a boondoggle for the city’s white elite.

The strategy so far clearly has been to soft-pedal opera’s aristocratic aura, to characterize it as part of a broad-based community effort.

“The excitement of this project is in the breadth of the community it will serve,” Dayton says. “It is not a single organization facility, like the Dallas Museum of Art or the Mey-erson or the African-American Museum. It is a complex that is going to meet the needs of a broad array of arts organizations.

The smaller companies with their smaller core constituencies have joined the Opera in an ad hoc coalition to sell the multi-venue plan. For these groups, not only is there strength in numbers, but also the reassuring knowledge that the big-dollar guys behind the Opera clearly want-and need-their support.

“Everything that’s being done is for everyone’s good,” says Dennis Vincent, executive director of the non-profit Arts District Friends. “We’ve gone through a long and somewhat arduous process of building this coalition. We’re going to follow through, trying to keep the group together.”

The Lyric Theater is the largest of six structures contemplated for the Arts District in a feasibility study released by Theatre Projects Consultants, a firm hired by Dayton’s group. Besides The Opera, the Lyric space would accommodate musicals, as well as Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, among other possible tenants.

Also contemplated in the report is an 850-seat, so-called “Multiform” space, the prospective future home of the Dallas Theater Center. Cost: $61.9 million.

A”Proscenium Theater” with a670-seat capacity would house the Dallas Black Dance Theater and the Dallas Children’s Theater, Cost: $27 million.

Finally, three “Community Theaters,” capable of seating 350. 199, and 99 patrons would be built for a total of $19.85 million.

Under the current funding formula, the City would pay 60 percent of the project’s costs, which means that if the proposed facilities arc to be built, fans of the opera, dance, theater, and other performing ans will need to find about $100 million to make the dream a reality.

Last spring, Dallas voters enthusiastically endorsed Proposition 7, which allocated more than $ 10 million to get the project started. Supporters now must raise enough money to convince the city to place another funding proposition on the ballot, probably in 2002.

Some prospective tenants aren’t sure they can wait that long. The Dallas Children’s Theater, for example, is living on borrowed time on land across from the Crescent Court. “I have to applaud anything that brings attention to the arts’ need for adequate space,” says Robyn Flatt, executive director of the Children’s Theater. “I’m just not sure we can wait.”

Such a possibility is not lost on John Dayton. “We haven’t yet begun to address any of the hard issues,” he says.

Finance being foremost. The fund-raising effort inevitably will reach out to corporations, arts foundations, and individuals. It was Ross Perot’s $ 10 million gift, after all, that gave him the right to name the symphony center for his friend Mort Meyerson.

“Naming opportunities will obviously be a major impetus behind the capital campaign,” says Dayton. “A project like this has all sorts of opportunities.”

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