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Art Notes: Claremont Opera House plans to expand offerings, audience

  • Board president Felicia Brych Dalke at Claremont Opera House in Claremont, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. The Board of Directors have been working on several fundraising efforts in order to hire new staff, expand program offerings and generate revenue. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Eric Durett, owner of Lakeman Theatrical Services, works on installing a screen at Claremont Opera House in Claremont, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Board president Felicia Brych Dalke says the opera house plans to continue to diversify their programming, including showing old movies on the new screen. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts executive director Melissa Richmond at the former Claremont National Bank building, which will be the nonprofit's new home after a $2.7 million renovation in Claremont, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. The space will include a performance venue, a commercial kitchen, practice rooms and a gallery space spread throughout the building's three floors. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/8/2021 9:25:30 PM
Modified: 9/8/2021 9:25:37 PM

Gerry Grimo first played at Claremont Opera House in the mid-1990s, when he was in the orchestra for a production of Oklahoma!

Over the years, he has performed there in other ensembles, including a backing band he put together for The Shirelles. The old hall, built in 1897, hits a sweet spot.

“It’s cozy. Nice acoustics,” Grimo said Wednesday. The sound “comes right back at you. You don’t need to put out a ton of power for it to sound good.”

In recent times, the opera house has been pretty quiet, though, with fewer performances than in years past. An effort is underway to expand the opera house’s audiences.

At the same time, a second venue is in the works in the former Claremont National Bank building, which is attached to the opera house. The West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts has outgrown its home in West Claremont’s Union Church. The planned Claremont Creative Center has raised about 40% of a $2.7 million fundraising goal.

The two proposals — to invigorate the 775-seat opera house and to add a 140-seat performance venue with space for lessons and workshops and a commercial kitchen — demonstrate that the industrial city plans to tap an economic power source that has illuminated other Upper Valley downtowns, notably Lebanon and White River Junction.

“We are already changing,” Felicia Brych Dalke, who chairs the board of the nonprofit that oversees the city-owned opera house, said in a recent interview. The organization has expanded its board (Grimo, a Windsor resident, joined last year, for example) and, last winter, hired a new executive director, Andrew Pinard.

Pinard’s job is to bring in a wider range of programming, both from a distance and locally. The board initiated a “Renaissance Campaign” to raise money to increase staffing, including hiring Pinard.

“A lot of the programming had gotten to be predictable,” Pinard said.

The schedule was heavy with tribute bands, children’s shows and comedy, which were crowd-pleasing but not crowd-building. The community needs to feel involved and engaged, he said.

To that end, the opera house is reaching out to other local performing arts organizations to talk about programming. A new movie screen is going in this week, which would enable movie revivals as well as live simulcasts.

Pinard, who lives in Bradford, N.H., founded and ran Hatbox Theatre in Concord, and he said he’d also like to partner with local businesses to develop some multi-day festivals — around jazz, burlesque, magic or vaudeville — that would bring visitors to Claremont.

“Those are going to take a little time to develop,” he said.

In the meantime, the opera house will host around 20 events from now through Dec. 10.

Grimo, the longtime director of the East Bay Jazz Ensemble, is heading up a Claremont Opera House Orchestra, which has played some pop-up performances during the pandemic at the city’s Arrowhead Recreation Area. The orchestra will play Dixieland jazz on Saturday evening at Arrowhead. Seating begins at 5:30. For details, see the opera house’s website, claremontoperahouse.info.

Though a full fall schedule hasn’t been announced, highlights include an Oct. 1 performance by New York-based singer-songwriter Kat Edmonson, who channels the charm of early jazz vocalists while making their songs and sound her own.

And a national tour of A Christmas Carol will be in residence for three weeks of rehearsals, with performances the weekend before Thanksgiving, Pinard said.

Eventually, Pinard would like to get the opera house up to between 100 and 150 dates a year. In building up an audience, the opera house faces a version of the chicken-and-egg conundrum.

“I hate to say it, but it’s a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of thing,” Pinard said.

Part of the plan is to rebuild membership in the opera house, said Dalke, who has been on the board since 2019 and has led it for the past year. Dalke worked in technology for 25 years, including 16 years at Cisco Systems. She is now self-employed and devotes time to volunteering, primarily for the opera house.

Designed by the celebrated architect Charles Rich, the opera house has seen its fortunes wax and wane over the decades. It fell into disuse and closed in 1963. A group formed in 1968 to bring it back, and it reopened in 1979 with the support of the nonprofit that now operates it.

A federal grant put the $3.9 million fundraising effort over the top, said John Bennett, a longtime board member who helped lead the reopening.

“It was the idea that it would be, like we’re talking about now, it would be rejuvenating for the city,” Bennett said Tuesday.

The opera house turns 125 next year, and if all goes according to plan, the neighboring Claremont Creative Center could be open late next year, too. The leaders of the two operations see a linked future.

The West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts has been programming concerts in Union Church since 2008, but to grow it needs to move.

The church is only a short drive from downtown, but the bank building, which has been empty for over two decades, is within walking distance for more than half of city residents, Melissa Richmond, founder and director of the West Claremont Center, said Tuesday. The location on Opera House Square makes it possible for children to walk to music lessons, she said.

The building also has a door into the opera house, making collaboration easy.

“Felicia is wonderful,” Richmond said. “She’s been excellent to work with.”

Richmond has brought a wide range of performers to Union Church and to the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, where she is the music director.

The pandemic has slowed the fundraising effort, she said, but consultants Eric Bunge and Amanda Rafuse, who helped lead the successful effort to build Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, are working on the campaign.

The Claremont Development Authority owns the bank building, so the project has city support, as does the opera house, which shares its building with City Hall.

The arts are “critical in having an active and vibrant city center,” Nancy Merrill, Claremont’s director of planning and development, said Wednesday.

This is not going to be an overnight turnaround. Strong fundraising is required to support both for capital improvements and staffing. And weaving the arts into a community takes time, as Richmond has discovered putting on concerts in West Claremont.

But there’s a vision there, of two venues working together, that has excited the interest of arts presenters and economic development officials alike.

“I think just having that robustness gets people used to having the arts being part of their life,” Richmond said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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