Building a Better Opera

The issues behind last April's street riots remain unaddressed and, as a result, Cincinnati continues to languish. The Coalition for a Just Cincinnati's 'Artists of Conscience' campaign -- a call fo

Feb 21, 2002 at 2:06 pm

The issues behind last April's street riots remain unaddressed and, as a result, Cincinnati continues to languish. The Coalition for a Just Cincinnati's 'Artists of Conscience' campaign — a call for entertainers, musicians and other performers to boycott Cincinnati until racial injustice is seriously dealth with — gains momentum. Local artists and arts administrators continue to feel the impact of Cincinnati's racial divide. The overall news is bleak, but a few significant arts projects provide some much-needed hope.

The ongoing construction of the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art shows the arts' dedication to downtown. Closer to the riots' ground zero, Cincinnati Opera is making a renewed commitment to Over-the-Rhine.

On Feb. 20, the Opera announced its $3.3 million plan to renovate historic Music Hall's underused north hall space into the Corbett Opera Center. A $1.5 million donation from the Corbett Foundation will allow the Opera to combine its offices, rehearsal spaces and support staff into a central location — bringing back Music Hall's north windows and providing the company a street-level presence.

The 12-month renovation project will bring new excitement to the corner of 14th and Elm streets. It will also move the Opera closer to its 10-year master plan to create a repertory festival performed at multiple venues.

'This project is about Over-the-Rhine development,' says Artistic Director Nicholas Muni, who recently extended his contract to 2005. 'We remain in Music Hall and become more committed to Music Hall. It's one in a series of steps to revitalize the area. It will also allow us to grow and make an impact on what we can do artistically.'

A series of CD-ROM images show off the Opera's proposed new offices. Artist Rafal Olbinski's edgy artwork, part of the Opera's successful marketing campaign, serves as a colorful backdrop for the new entrance.

Since Muni arrived in 1996, replacing Artistic Director Jim de Blasis, the Opera has converted challenging programming into measurable audience and development growth. Muni staged a stark production of Jenufa in 1998, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw in 1999 and Debussy's Péleas et Mélisande in 2000. Last year, he brought Canadian director Robert Lepage's avant-garde pairing of Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung to Cincinnati audiences. Next season, Dead Man Walking, a new work from San Francisco Opera, makes its Midwest premiere here.

Still, the Opera's most challenging offering is breathing added life into the neighborhood they call home.

Through the Corbett Opera Center, the company provides an artistic response to Over-the-Rhine's problems. It's more than brick, steel and glass. The new center allows the Opera to open its doors and break down the elitist stereotypes that are sometimes obstacles to the city's fine arts institutions.

Asked if the Artists of Conscience campaign could make a negative impact on the Opera, Muni says, 'My sense is that it will be targeted toward entertainers who make a financial impact. Visibility is an objective in this, and the name Bill Cosby is highly visible.

'But the only way this is going to turn around is through racial harmony, and that's by changing one mind at a time. You can't legislate it. You can't command people to be racially harmonious. You have to evolve, and that's how the arts have a say. There's a reason why we call it the arts and humanities.'

During last year's election campaign, Mayor Charlie Luken singled out his support of the Opera's Music Hall project as proof of his pro-arts platform. With the Opera's Feb. 20 announcement, Luken has the opportunity to back his words with City Hall dollars.

The Corbett Opera Center project will not solve Over-the-Rhine's problems, but it's a step in the right direction. It's also a way to connect the creative energy that exists inside Music Hall with the rest of Over-the-Rhine.

'I think the challenge for arts organizations is to plan for the future and react to the present,' Muni says. 'This is part of our reaction to the tremendous success of the past few years. We're doing things our community wants us to do, and we can see what out community wants us to be.'