Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2005

Walk through the gilded portals and take a step back in time. The North Park Theatre has been lovingly restored to its original splendor. Built in 1928 in the “Moorish Deco” style popular at the time, the venerable structure served as a silent movie palace and vaudeville house. For awhile, it was rented by a church. But since 1975, it has sat vacant and unused. In 1990, the City of San Diego, intent on preservation, purchased the building, whose façade is registered as a local and a state historic landmark. In the intervening years, Lyric Opera San Diego has lobbied hard, helped raise considerable funds, and made the largest leap of its 31 year history. Originally known as the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, then as the San Diego Comic Opera, the Lyric Opera will leave its former digs at the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, to serve as the managing tenant of their splendid new home. They become one of only a dozen opera companies in the U.S. to own or operate its own performance facility.

“We had the vision, and now it’s happening,” crows general director Leon Natker. “It’s been an enormously exciting and satisfying roller coaster ride.”

His high emotions are echoed by artistic director J. Sherwood “Jack” Montgomery, who grew up – and still lives – just three blocks from the theater. “When I was 7,” he says, “I went to the movies at the North Park Theatre. And I wanted to be up on that stage. One of the exciting things for me is that, not only has my life come full cycle, but now there will be other 7 year-old kids whose hopes and dreams will be sparked by what they see here.”

Lyric Opera productions – including comic opera, operetta, musical theater and Gilbert and Sullivan classics – won’t be all San Diegans get to see on the newly restored stage. The 736-seat house, now officially called the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, will also be used by a wide array of arts groups, including Malashock Dance, the San Diego Men’s Chorus, City Ballet of San Diego, California Ballet, Classics for Kids, the Cinema Society of San Diego, the Women’s Repertory Theatre, Mainly Mozart and the La Jolla Music Society.

Natker, energetic actor/director/tenor/conductor/cantor/surfer, is quick to point out that this is the only theater of its size in San Diego with outstanding acoustics, a full-sized orchestra pit, a scenery-flexible fly-loft above and trap below the stage, and a ‘sprung floor’ for dance. Natker boasts that the orchestra pit, which raises and lowers, is the second biggest in the city (exceeded only by the 3000-seat Civic Theatre) and the sound and lighting booths are the city’s largest. The original organ (the last theater Wurlitzer ever built) will be refurbished and re-installed. Considerable research and care have gone into restoring or duplicating all the original lights, fixtures and trim, the finials, tiles, carpeting, seats and marquee. Developer Arnold B. “Bud” Fisher has reinstated the former look and feel, while transforming the burgundy, gold and white palace into a state-of-the-art performance venue. It’s what Natker calls “an intimate, opulent, old-fashioned, mid-size, red-palace theater, just like they have in Europe.”

True to its history and mission, Lyric Opera San Diego will inaugurate the new facility with Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operetta, The Mikado. Written in 1885 as an homage to all things Japanese, the story is universal, featuring young lovers mis-matched with older mates, bumbling officials, an executioner — and a happy ending. This huge new production, the seventh Mikado for the company, will be co-produced with Lyric Opera Oklahoma.

““The music is great,” says Natker, who conducts and directs. “It’s beautiful to sing, and wonderful for young singers. The lyrics are very clever – and we’ll add some topical references. The basic play is standard commedia dell’arte. An old guy wants to marry a young girl who’s repulsed by him. It’s also a social commentary about small-town bureaucrats, which couldn’t be more relevant, given what’s been going on in San Diego. We all know a Pooh-Bah bribable for anything. The costumes will be very lush and it will all be very lavish. It’s the perfect show to introduce kids to this form of theater.”

With all the changes in store, one Lyric Opera commitment remains unchanged. “We always want to keep our shows affordable and accessible,” says Natker. “To introduce kids to the opera and musical theater experience, it has to be affordable — and to be fully accessible, it should be sung in the vernacular – English.” And, he believes strongly, it should be sung without amplification. Matinee performances are ½ price for youth age 5-18, and the “First View” program allows students to attend the final dress rehearsal. The future plan is for classes, training workshops and high school apprentices.

The new facility is designed for young and old to enjoy, with its theater, bar, Starbucks and full-service restaurant inside.

“This is something for the whole community,” says Natker. “For audiences to visit and see, and for the arts community to use.”

[The Mikado runs at the newly renovated Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, October 14-30. 619-239-8836, ]

©2005 Patté Productions Inc.