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UTAH OPERA’S `OTHER’ HOME

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The dark-red-brick and concrete building just northwest of West High School may not look like much from the front. But around to the side its lengthy expanse of loading dock opens on a new consolidated production facility for Utah Opera, sparking the first capital campaign in the company's 18-year history.

"We used to be in five locations," explains general director Anne Ewers from her office in the Capitol Theatre, still the company's main performing and administrative venue."The scenic studio was in the old Cream o' Weber Building in Ogden. The costume shop was in two floors of the Dinwoodey Building here. We had the music department on the top floor of Promised Valley Playhouse and the production and education department in the basement of the Capitol Theatre. And the property department was in the JB's Restaurant warehouse in South Salt Lake.

"Most opera companies do struggle with several locations," she acknowledges, "but I don't think I've ever seen as many as five."

Accordingly, Utah Opera officials met last summer with Kresge Foundation representatives in Michigan and, in Ewers' words, "found out about their interest in bricks-and-mortar projects. And that kind of planted a seed that it was possible to purchase a building."

The present facility, formerly owned by Exhibit Systems Inc., was located by the end of December - remarkably because, as Ewers points out, "at that time the vacancy rate for commercial properties was only 2 percent. It was also amazing that, in doing the building inspections, David Eckhoff of Eckhoff Watson & Preator Engineering, indicated that he had never seen a better fit of building to need."

Those inspections were made on a "pro bono" basis, just as several of the company's previous storage facilities had been made available to it on what Utah Opera technical director T.H. Stettler calls "a sort of donated basis.

"Basically the various companies and individuals said, `We have space here and, until such time as we get a good offer, you guys can use it free.' Which was nice but left us in a transient state - we were always in fear of losing the site in question."

That shouldn't happen here. Having located the building, the company approached the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Foundation for assistance and by February had a commitment of $500,000 for the project, $400,000 of it for the facility and the remaining $100,000 to establish an operating-and-maintenance fund to keep it in business.

"That was the idea of the Eccles Foundation's chairman, David P. Gardner, who is also on our board," Ewers says, "and it was a brilliant strategy. So many times a company will purchase a building but doesn't think about how to sustain it."

In addition, she says, the foundation set up its $400,000 purchase gift "as a 2-to-1 match to leverage community support." As a result another $300,000 has been pledged by the Utah Opera board of trustees, the Utah Opera staff and guilds and members of the capital campaign committee for a total of $800,000 - more than half the campaign's minimum goal of $1.5 million.

"We do have a short timeline on this," Ewers acknowledges, pointing out that the campaign needs to be completed by the end of the calendar year. "And, of course, we'll be up against tons of competition with other very important capital campaigns going on."

But as one of the few companies of its size to operate in the black, with a $2.7 million operating budget for 1994-95, she hopes Utah Opera's reputation for fiscal responsibility will stand it in good stead with its donors. That and the fact that the move to the new building, which began last June, will help the company save money.

"To be able to operate all areas of production under one roof is absolutely invaluable in terms of communication among staff members and the efficient use of time and money," Ewers says. And the same is true of the company's expanding rental business.

"We have rented sets throughout North America," she explains, "costumes have gone as far away as New Zealand, and now we are starting to build productions for other opera companies. For example, we did two shows for Utah Festival Opera, `Magic Flute' and `She Loves Me.' "

Another advantage of the 400 West facility, Ewers says, is that "we'll be able to rehearse on complete sets in that shop space, which will relieve the congestion of scheduling the Capitol Theatre." In addition, she says, the company will be able to run its entire young artists program - now called the Utah Opera Ensemble Program - out of the new building.

Thus once across the threshold, to the right of the newly repainted gray-and-silver entrance hallway, one sees a space that looks suspiciously like a rehearsal room. And once past the costume shop, with its busily humming sewing machines and rack upon rack of wardrobe, the main hangar opens on a remarkably spacious area for set storage and construction.

"One of the really nice things about this building," comments Stettler, "and one of the reasons we chose it, is that the people who were here before filled a very similar function - they built scenery for conventions. So the actual costs of getting in and starting up were much lower than they might have been."

At the same time Stettler says he wouldn't have minded an even larger facility, "say 60,000 or 80,000 square feet, as opposed to the 40,000 we have here. But with almost three acres of ground, even if we do outgrow the current facility in five years, rather than find another and have to move, we can look at maybe adding another warehouse."

For now, there still seems to be plenty of space in the present one, as one wanders past such relics as the southern Utah rocks from the company's last "Magic Flute," the gingerbread children from "Hansel and Gretel" and, to one side of the construction shop, a stripped-down Volkwagen destined for next season's "Dreamkeepers" premiere, the company's first commissioned opera.

Perhaps no one appreciates the jump forward this year's move represents more than Susan Memmott Allred, who has been designing costumes for Utah Opera since its move from Kingsbury Hall to the Capitol Theatre 17 years ago.

"I remember when we started there was one sewing machine, 10 costumes and one box. Then when we went over to the new building and I saw all those racks up, I can't tell you what a wonderful feeling that was."

Allred puts the company's current inventory at close to 3,000 costumes.

Some, she says, go back as far as the company's beginnings under its founder, Glade Peterson. "In fact one of the kings in our `Amahl and the Night Visitors' actually wears Glade's `Otello' robe."

Now all those shows are organized on racks, "something we never had before. We used to have to keep them all in boxes. But now our wardrobe mistress, Verona Green, can go to the costume rack and see an entire show with all its accessories together. That not only makes our job easier - it also allows other designers to come to the shop and pull costumes they would like, because they're now visible."

Another plus, she says, is that "in the other building we could never hook up all the sewing machines or we'd blow all the fuses, so we used to have to do double shifts, a day shift and a night shift. Now we can have a crew of 10 or 13 and have power for all our machines."

Before then, Ewers recalls, the costume shop was housed in the basement of Daynes Music Co., "which is neat because Skip Daynes is now the general chairman of the capital campaign committee." Potential donors are invited to contact either him or the company's director of development, Glen Lanham, at 323-6872.

Changes are undoubtedly due for the new facility as well. "Come back in a year and I don't think you'll recognize the place," Stettler says with a chuckle.

As for Allred, she looks back as well as ahead.

"To have something like this after all these years - Glade would be proud."