Summer opera moves to Jefferson Theater

jefferson theater interior renovationAsh Lawn Opera Company is moving indoors–- in a big way. The English-singing Company will fund massive improvements inside the Jefferson Theater to help the nearly century-old structure recreate its 1912 grandeur.

"I'm thrilled," says company director Judy Walker. "We're all very excited about the prospect of moving to the Jefferson and not having to deal with mud and heat."

Since 1978, the Company has dodged raindrops, newlyweds, and the occasional strolling peacock to present outdoor opera at Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of fifth president James Monroe. But the al fresco tradition changes in the summer of 2010. The opera company is embarking on a $4.5 million capital campaign to pay for some of the $7.5 million in improvements soon slated for the Jefferson.

"We need an orchestra pit, and we need dressing rooms, and the acoustics have to be perfect for us," says Walker, who says her board is nearing completion of a 20-year summertime lease at the Jefferson. Walker began investigating the Jefferson as a potential site two years ago, around the time music mogul Coran Capshaw purchased what was then primarily a discount movie theater (then owned and operated by this reporter).

"I cannot tell you," says Walker, "how happy our company will be– to not have to worry about humidity and drippy trees, for our singers not to have to duck behind bushes for quick changes, for people to have comfortable chairs, and for us to use real theater paint and not waterproof Sears Weatherbeater paint."

Neither Capshaw nor his Jefferson project manager, Kirby Hutto, who also operates the Charlottesville Pavilion, was immediately available for comment, but both have committed to maintaining the history of the Jefferson, which has played host to everything from high school plays to film premieres to live performances by the likes of Dave Matthews, Terri Allard, Harry Houdini, and the Three Stooges.

"We don't want it to be a formal opera experience," says Walker. "You will still be able to take a glass of wine or whatever inside."

With the recent closures of Starr Hill Music Hall and the Satellite Ballroom, a void has arisen in form of a mid-sized concert hall, and Hutto has expressed interest in returning concerts to the Jefferson with 500 seats plus standing room.

"It is so exciting to think of an opera house and a rock theater coming together as one," says Walker. "Music is so important to our culture. I don't think there's any other place like it in the country."

For the past two years, the company has kept an office courtesy of Capshaw in a rent-free storefront on Fourth Street NE. Walker recalls that in 1982, as president of the Junior League of Charlottesville, she purchased the Downtown Mall structure now housing Splendora's gelato shop as the home of the League's thrift shop, dubbed the Opportunity Shop.

"I really thought it was the right place to be," says Walker. "And then all of a sudden all the activity on the Mall stopped. So for me to see the Mall become what it is today, I cannot tell you special it is and how wonderful it is to see all those people every day."

–last updated 3:06pm, Sunday, August 3


Please please fix that picture. What's there is such a tease.

Yeah, the Jefferson! But they will still show movies once in a while, right? Perhaps a nice Chaplin in keeping with the feel from that era?

The ALO spent the past five years or so preparing to build a massive outdoor theater on the grounds of Ash Lawn. Had drawings and site work done and everything. Curious.
I hope the Jefferson will still bring musical acts during the summer. Opera only would be absolutely dreadful.