For years the painted panels, fake rocks and other pieces of opera-making magic have been warehoused in a scattered array of tired buildings.
By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star
Now neat stacks and shelves of scenery and props await future use in a brand new home — the lower level of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s administrative building in the East Crossroads.
The new center, at 1725 Holmes St., will be christened officially later this week. The Lyric has been moving toward this day since at least 2007, when it sold the Lyric Theatre, its cramped longtime home, and bought three adjacent buildings north of 18th Street.
The Lyric thus joins the Kansas City Ballet and the Kansas City Symphony as proud residents of new headquarters within blocks of their new performing home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s a rather extraordinary investment in the arts by each organization — on top of the $400-plus million Kauffman Center — and it comes at a time when many similar arts operations across the country are struggling to remain afloat.
In addition to scene storage and administrative offices, the new complex — a $10.5 million project not yet fully funded — includes abundant rehearsal space and shops for set construction, painting, costuming and wigs. Two older brick buildings were demolished to make way for the building.
The complex already has helped the Lyric expand an existing revenue stream — set rentals and construction for other opera companies and performing arts organizations. Rental income in the last five years has grown to six figures annually, Greg Hubbard, the Lyric’s chief financial officer, said on a recent building tour. That’s not insignificant, given that the Lyric’s budget for 2012-13 is just over $6 million.
The facility also gives the Lyric more of an opportunity to co-produce operas with other companies.
Two seasons ago, for example, the Washington National Opera presented the Lyric’s 2006 production of “Hamlet,” and those sets will be on the road again in the coming season, getting a workout at the Minnesota Opera in March.
“Previously it was not very efficient,” Hubbard said. “It took a lot longer to produce things than it does now.”
An old school gymnasium in the East Bottoms served as the scene shop, and sets had to be painted outdoors on the adjacent playground blacktop. The setup made for a lot of schlepping and weather watching.
Now, Hubbard said, the Lyric has what’s probably the largest scene shop in the area.
Keith Brumley and his staff have built sets or painted backdrops for the Des Moines Opera, Kansas City Ballet and even Kansas City-based rapper Tech N9ne.
“There’s at least as much interest in this room,” Brumley said, standing at the edge of the high-ceilinged space, “as there is with everything else.”
An overlook high above the workspace gives designers a chance to see the big picture, much as audiences will, while painting and other details are still under way.
“We want to be a resource,” said Deborah Sandler, the Lyric’s new general director. “The ‘Nixon in China’ production that was done here went on to San Francisco, but they engaged us to work on the set for them because we have that capacity. We have a paint floor so we can do things that nobody else can do.
“And we have the crafts people here to do it, which of itself is a tremendous contribution to the city and to the field. A lot of opera companies … bring in wig people and costume people. But we have the crafts people here to do it.”
Design architect for the new storage and administrative building, as well as the renovated warehouse, was Richard Hu of HJM Architects of Kansas City.
With its low-lying horizontal thrust, glass walls and orange metal siding, the exterior looks as if it walked out of one of Ed Ruscha’s California paintings. Inside, the second-floor lobby and administrative offices are awash in natural light, and staffers not only have an outdoor second-floor patio but also an inspiring view of the Kauffman Center, nine blocks to the west.
“You always hope for the best,” Hu said, “but that turned out well — having the lobby and that outdoor patio space with a view of the PAC is perfect.”
The atrium lobby also connects to a covered walkway that spans an alley and links the new facility with the production and rehearsal wing behind it. More important, the north ends of both buildings are designed for easy heavy-lifting access between the storage and construction spaces. An array of solar panels will help reduce the Lyric’s electricity bill by 30 percent, Hubbard said.
The project is mostly all function with a minimum of flash. Yet, it almost never happened.
The production facility renovation was the Lyric’s first priority, and the scene shops were up and running in roughed-out space in 2009. The rehearsal room and interior details were mostly completed in 2011.
During that period, the Lyric was considering renting cave space for storage and continuing to lease office space. Hu helped guide them to the idea that both things could be accomplished in one new building. Being architecturally uncomplicated, as these things go, the project took general contractor McCownGordon barely more than a year, 14 months, to build.
“This is a brilliantly designed building,” Sandler said. “It sort of symbolizes what the Lyric does — it’s so much with not that much. I mean, there are opera companies that have built buildings for four or five times the cost of what this cost. This has been done really well and really economically.”
Robert Trussell contributed to this story.
Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor, 816-240-4762, firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @sbpaul.