“It’s so big.”
“It’s so light.”
“Were those windows always there?”
These were a few of the murmured comments from the little group of visitors sporting hard hats who ventured into the Napa Valley Opera House on Tuesday to view the dramatic changes underway as the historic building is transformed into a City Winery.
Construction is on schedule to be done by April 1, said Michael Dorf, the founder of the City Winery venues, which include sites in New York City and Chicago. The first performance at the new City Winery at the Opera House will be a Bruce Cockburn concert April 10.
This will be the third opening in the Opera House’s 130-year history. Most strikingly, the upstairs theater is being returned to the way it was when it first opened in 1880: The floor is again flat, and the rows of theater seating are gone, sold by the Opera House board of directors to a nonprofit in New York. Despite the reconfiguration of the auditorium, the decor will be familiar to recent concertgoers.
The board struggled to keep the Opera House solvent after it reopened in 2003, following a community-based effort to save and restore the building that had first opened in the 19th century with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
The Opera House was originally a popular site for shows, town meetings and balls. Jack London read from its stage, John Philip Sousa led his brass band there and John L. Lewis fought an exhibition match. Hurt by the decline of vaudeville, the Opera House closed in 1914 and remained dark for nearly a century.
After the 2003 renovation, the Opera House had a downstairs Cafe Theatre, while in the upstairs, rows of velvet theater seating had been installed on a new sloping floor. Although widely described as a gem by performers and audiences, directors struggled to find the formula for presenting entertainment and paying the bills.
Enter Dorf, a New York-based impresario who had created two successful big-city venues that combine live entertainment, winemaking, and food and beverage service.
Dorf had come to know Napa while sourcing grapes for his City Winerys. When word got out that Dorf was considering Napa for a third City Winery site, the Opera House board got in touch with him.
The result is a 10-year lease, during which Dorf will pay rent to the board of directors, while allowing the board to present 75 shows of its own each year. Dorf is also paying for the extensive renovations to the building.
Downstairs, the largely underused space, which served as a reception area for theater patrons, has been redesigned to host a restaurant and a bar that will be open seven days a week. The bar will have 35 wines on tap, 30 of them local wines, Dorf noted as he led a tour through the construction area. Wine will also be sold by the bottle, from a list of about 400 selections.
Dividers made of wine barrel slats separate the bar from the dining area, which will accommodate 75. The tour was unanimous in its praise of the new vaulted brick ceiling that replaces the previous one, which was low and painted orange.
The old design had a kitchen that looked like it had never been used, Dorf said. He’s expanding it to become a working kitchen that will prepare food both for the restaurant and for diners upstairs for shows.
This week Dorf announced that he’d hired Joseph Panarello to oversee the menu; Panarello, who has worked at restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, was most recently chef at Izzy’s Palace in the Bay Area’s Alamo. The concept for food at City Winerys is “wine friendly, globally inspired and locally sourced,” with reasonable prices, Dorf said.
The Margrit Biever Theatre, reimagined
Up the burgundy carpeted staircase, the visitors found more surprises — mostly how spacious, light and airy the space had become after the removal of the theater seating and the ascending flooring. These will be replaced by tables and chairs where the audience can have meals, drinks or desserts during shows.
In the south back corner is a bar, and nearby a discreet divider provides a shield for the stairs the servers will use to bring up food from the kitchen.
The food and beverage service upstairs and downstairs is the key to keeping a venue financially successful, Dorf said, explaining that ticket sales are generally taken up by performers’ fees.
He said the service has not interfered with performances at his other venues. He described how an exacting performer, Natalie Cole, had specified no food service when she agreed to do three shows at City Winery. “She didn’t want the clinking of glass to interfere,” he said.
They worked out a compromise to only serve food in the back of the house, far from the stage. “After the show I asked her how it was, and she said she hadn’t noticed anything. She said, ‘Go ahead, serve food,’ throughout the theater for her remaining shows.” Afterward, she again said that nothing had bothered her during the show, Dorf said.
Dorf also plans to make the space available for rentals for private events. “Can you imagine this space for a wedding?” he asked.
“It was really important to get the details right,” Dorf said, as his team mapped out the changes. These include installing new wainscoting at the front of the stage that matches the original on the balcony. He noted that he’d also left three rows of the old theater seats upstairs, “for people who really like them.”
“Probably the biggest change is that we’re moving the sound booth upstairs to the balcony,” he said. “It was a design flaw to put it on the lower level under the balcony.” The new location, he said, “will really improve the sound.”
Dorf has stressed that it’s also important to him to connect with the community. As part of this he is offering special deals for nonprofits to host fundraisers at the Opera House, and will offer discounts to locals in the restaurant. He’s also planning a shuttle that will provide bus service from Calistoga, St. Helena and Yountville to Napa before and after shows.
Dorf said he had met with Margrit Biever Mondavi, who, with her husband, the late Robert Mondavi, had donated a $2.2 million challenge grant to start the first set of renovations. As a result of their support the theater was named for Margrit Biever Mondavi, and this will remain, Dorf said.
“She invited me over for dinner and I told her about the plans,” Dorf said. “She really likes what we’re doing.”
Napa Valley Register