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Stunning Lyric Theatre open for business-D&C Article-April 9, 2015

Stunning Lyric Theatre open for business
Jeff Spevak, Staff writer

Once a house of worship, the doors of the stunning First Church of Christ, Scientist, were officially opened Wednesday to the spectrum of Rochester’s arts society: opera, perhaps the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and certainly that once-feared corrupter of souls, jazz.

The Rochester Lyric Opera closed the deal on its $1.2 million acquisition Tuesday. Its new home at 440 East Ave., re-christened The Lyric Theatre, is an architectural marvel that has escaped the notice of many Rochesterians since its opening 100 years ago.

Calling it “a well-kept secret,” Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks admitted, “I didn’t know it was here.” Robert Duffy, president and chief executive officer of the Rochester Business Alliance, said, “I’ve driven by this building thousands of times and did not know what was inside.”

But it did not escape the notice of George Eastman. The building was the inspiration for the Eastman Theatre, as confirmed by one obvious detail: The Palladium ceiling over the vast Lyric Theatre auditorium is virtually the same as the one in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

The two buildings also share the same red clay-tile roofs and four massive columns at the front of the building, but are otherwise quite distinct from each other in design. The Lyric Theatre’s anonymity may be due to it being tucked in among trees and other architecturally intriguing buildings at the intersection of East Avenue and Prince Street.

Diminishing numbers at First Church of Christ, Scientist, led to the decision to sell the building. “If it wasn’t going to be a church, it was surely meant to be a theater,” said Sue Cotroneo, managing director of Rochester Lyric Opera, as well as a singer with the group.

Rochester Lyric Opera has scheduled some events for the building, including an April 24 recital with tenor Matthew Swenson and its 10th anniversary celebration, an Aug. 28 presentation of Mozart’s The Impresario. The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival also will use the venue for five 4 p.m. shows June 21 through 25.

The jazz fest’s co-producers, John Nugent and Marc Iacona, will manage the new venue. “Once the building is renovated, I will program a year-round series of shows,” Nugent said, estimating 50 to 60 each year.

The Lyric Theatre also will be a venue for September’s First Niagara Fringe Festival.

An estimated $6 million in improvements will be needed. “That’s nothing,” Iacona said. “To build a venue like this would cost you $80 million, in my opinion.”

Church details such as the glass windows will remain, but the stage will be enlarged and a covered-over orchestra pit restored. Wood pews will be replaced by theater seating, leaving capacity in the main theater at 900.

A kitchen will be added to accommodate a cabaret-style theater seating about 150 guests, or 300 for a reception. Architectural drawings also project the building’s porch and front steps, and the front lawn, being used for outdoor shows.

A new sound system will be installed, but Cotroneo praised the sanctuary’s natural acoustics. Indeed, while guests at Wednesday’s news conference used microphones, producing a booming, god-like effect familiar to church sanctuaries, the jazz duo of bassist Kieran Hanlon and pianist Anthony Calabrese and the School of the Arts Concert Choir performed without amplification, filling the room with warm sound.

Renovations should begin by December, to be completed by May 2016, in time for that summer’s jazz fest.

Previous homes for the once-nomadic Rochester Lyric Opera have included Kilbourn Hall, Nazareth College and the Hall of Justice. The group plans on grants and private gifts covering the cost of the renovations.

“All of the major arts organizations have demonstrated a desire to use the space,” said Rochester Lyric Opera board member Tony Cotroneo, who will lead the fundraising efforts.

“We have been watching it with great interest,” said RPO president and CEO Charles Owens. The RPO generally plays in the 2,300-seat Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. “Scheduling and the anticipated size of the audience are factors, if the Eastman Theatre is too large.”

While everyone from Brooks to city communications director James Smith were praising the acquisition of the midsized venue, city and county officials said they will not relax in the pursuit of a downtown performing arts theater.

“This will complement it,” said Brooks. “The more, the better. I don’t think of it as competition, it will be a complement.”

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