Monday, October 10, 2005 | For decades now a nondescript, rundown building has hunkered at the corner of University Avenue and 29th Street in North Park, shuttered and all but forgotten. Passing by its peeling façade and cracked windows, one would hardly imagine that it was once the jewel in the crown of the Fox theater chain, a movie palace where vaudeville acts and live music entertained San Diegans of all ages in a lavish setting.

The story of the North Park Theatre is a long and colorful one, but unlike many that begin with glory and drift into neglect, it has a happy ending. On Oct. 14, 2005, a magnificent new red curtain will rise on the stage of the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre for the first live performance it has seen in 30 years – opening night of Lyric Opera San Diego’s production of “The Mikado.” At the end of the show, a glittering audience of patrons, press and VIPs will applaud the performance and then raise their glasses to the rebirth of this glorious venue, and a giant step in the history of Lyric Opera San Diego.

This city badly needs a feel-good story this year, and if I say so myself, the rebirth of the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre is an excellent candidate. The city has needed an urban theatre of this size for some time. Talk about your win-win-win-win-win situation! The theatre is brought back to life, the community gets a beautiful mid-size performing arts venue, the neighborhood’s revitalization effort gets a huge boost, and performing arts organizations of all sizes get an affordable state-of-the-art performance venue. Finally, Lyric Opera San Diego becomes one of only twelve opera companies in the entire country – and the only one in California – to own or operate its own venue, which will greatly expand our ability to produce the accessible, affordable, yet high-quality shows we’ve been performing in San Diego for 25 successful years.

The Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre is truly a theatre for all of San Diego, located in the heart of uptown and near several major freeways, within a half hour’s drive from North County and the South Bay. It now seats 740 and is the only theatre of its size in San Diego to feature a proscenium arch stage, a full-sized moveable orchestra pit and fly space above the stage. It’s also been made fully ADA compliant, and we’ve added washrooms (more stalls than the Old Globe!), expanded the lobby area, and installed state-of-the-art lighting and sound.

At the same time, we’ve done our best to restore as much of the original look and feel of the theatre as possible. This entailed a great deal of research, such as computerized color matching to identify the original colors used in the décor, and tracking down the original manufacturer of Mexican-style tile that trims the exterior of the building and some of the interior doorways. We found the original 1928 pipe organ, the last theater organ ever built by Wurlitzer, intact in a private home in Chula Vista. A separate fund-raising effort will be launched after the theatre’s opening to re-install it inside.

In addition to our four productions in fall 2005 and spring 2006, Lyric Opera is busy signing rental contracts with a variety of other performing arts organizations – ten so far, from St. Augustine high school to La Jolla Music Society – to fill the theatre the rest of the year. Generous donors have helped make this dream a reality, and the closer we get to our fund-raising goal, the more we are able to keep rental rates low. In addition to the $1 million gift that secured the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation naming rights to the theatre, major donations have come from the city of San Diego’s Redevelopment Agency, local arts supporters Dr. Merle and Teresa Fischlowitz, developer Bud Fischer and his wife Esther, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and The San Diego Foundation. A recent, anonymous gift of another $1 million has brought Lyric Opera’s fund-raising campaign to more than $7 million out of our total goal of $8 million. The city of San Diego is also building a 400-space parking structure across the street from the theatre.

Lyric Opera’s artistic director, J. Sherwood Montgomery, grew up in North Park, and as a child he used to dream of performing on this very stage. He and I are eager to expand Lyric Opera’s season and productions to take advantage of the new space. For the moment we are taking small steps, extending the run of the most popular shows and bringing in larger productions we were unable to present in our old, cramped venue. But we have great plans, now that we occupy a theatre that matches our vision and the talent we’ve been nurturing in young artists over the years. I hope you’ll all join us at one of our shows this season, to witness this magical venue in its full glory.

Lyric Opera San Diego opens the 2005-06 season with “The Mikado,” Oct. 14-30, 2005. In November, soprano Andrea Huber makes her U.S. debut in the title role of Kalman’s “Countess Maritza” (Nov. 11-20). Feb. 10-19, 2006 sees mezzo-soprano Priti Gandhi fresh from her Paris Opera debut, leading Rossini’s “Cinderella,” and from March 17-April 2, Ronald Banks sings the title role in “The King and I” in the company’s first-ever production of that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. All performances are in English.

For more information or tickets, please call Lyric Opera San Diego, (619) 239-8836 or visit

Leon Natker is the general director of the Lyric Opera San Diego.

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