By Roger McCredie-It may bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “culture wars.” Certainly a recent incident at Pack Place Cultural Center has caused the simmering resentment of the users of one of its facilities to boil over.
Last weekend the Asheville Lyric Opera Company presented a double feature, performing Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Puccini’s Suor Angelica back-to-back at Pack Place’s Diana Wortham Theatre. Saturday evening’s performance, however, clashed head-on with amplified DJ music from a lively wedding reception just outside, in the Asheville Art Museum’s atrium area.
Both ALO’s board chairman and its director said the same situation has occurred multiple times over the past year and a half.
Attendees of Saturday’s performance, as well as some ALO production staff, say the competing reception music – particularly the thump of the bass line — bled through the theatre walls and actually interfered with the audience’s ability to hear the opera score. Repeated appeals to tone down the party music were rebuffed, they say, with the DJ at one point telling an ALO representative, “I don’t work for you.”
“This is a significant problem,” said ALO general director David Starkey, who founded the company 15 years ago.
Starkey said problems with Art Museum events such as Saturday’s have been “ongoing” for the past year and a half. The museum aggressively markets its space in the Pack Place building as a venue for social events such as wedding receptions and cocktail parties. Asheville vice mayor and mayoral candidate Esther Manheimer, for instance, held an elaborate catered affair there last April to mark her campaign kickoff.
The problem, Starkey said, is the museum’s liberal interpretation of what “there” means.
“A lot of confusion has been created,” Starkey said. “The Pack Place occupants [the art museum, the theatre and Colburn Earth Science Center] don’t actually lease their spaces. Under agreements with Pack Place Corporation [which actually owns the building] they have areas they control and are responsible for. The art museum has extended its area of control into the common lobby and now calls that area its ‘atrium’ and makes it available for events along with the rest of its space,” he said.
“We keep an interactive online calendar,” Starkey said. “We can go to it and tell right away who has an event scheduled for what day and time. There’s a certain amount of noise connected with any wedding reception. There are two possibilities. Either – one – [the museum] doesn’t understand, or –two—they made a deliberate decision to hold their event the way they held it, regardless of how it might affect ours. It’s a bad situation and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to fix it,” he said.
Diana Wortham Theater manager John Ellis said the situation “was an unfortunate combination of circumstances coming together, a sort of imperfect storm. The wedding reception was booked in 2012 but we didn’t notice it until April of this year and by that time, of course, it was too late to change the opera performance. All we could do was hope for the best. We didn’t know until last week that they intended to have a DJ and a whole sound system.”
Starkey acknowledged that a sound check was held before the performance, and that at that time noise levels seemed acceptable. “You couldn’t hear a thing inside the theatre,” he said. But as the evening wore on and the reception space filled up with real people, the volume was apparently turned up. “The thumping from the bass line was particularly noticeable,” he said. At intermission several audience members reported hearing and feeling it, and cast members said it was bothering the female lead.
“After intermission, when ‘Suor Angelica’ started, it was even more noticeable. The opening of ‘Suor Angelica’ is very quiet. Sound was pouring into the theatre by then.”
“In all fairness,” said Ellis, “the museum staff person helping with the reception did everything she could to remedy the situation. Most wedding receptions are a mix of people of all ages, but this one was almost entirely young people and they were having a good time. The [museum staff] did their best to contain the noise.
“We understand the museum’s capital improvement plans called for construction of an interior wall in that space. If a wall had been in place it would have done a lot to contain both the crowd and the noise.”
But the museum’s capital improvement plan seems to have run aground. The $24 million capital fundraising drive was launched in 2006 but it has raised less than half its target amount in seven years. The museum applied for and received a total of $1.5 million in Tourism and Development Authority funds, but that money is still in escrow because the grants are performance-based and TDA says the museum has failed to achieve interim fundraising goals. The city recently awarded an additional $2 million to the museum for capital improvements, but those funds, too, are escrowed until the museum achieves its own financial objectives. Recently art museum executive director Pam Myers declared that the museum took a “formal hiatus” from fundraising after the onset of the 2008 economic downturn and has only recently recommenced fundraising efforts. It was not clear whether the museum notified TDA of its decision to suspend fundraising when it applied for yet another grant from them last year. (The grant was declined and since the museum was deemed to have defaulted on its other contracts, a new one was issued, giving the museum until January 31, 2014 to comply with its conditions. Myers has repeatedly and emphatically denied that there was ever any default. At least one source has said she has already stated the museum will not be able to meet the new contract’s January deadline.)
Belinda Brandon, ALO’s board chairman, was considerably less conciliatory than Ellis in apportioning blame for Saturday’s fiasco. “They [museum staff] let the DJ put his speakers practically right up next to the theatre entrance area,” she said.
Brandon also put the dueling events into a dollars-and-cents perspective. “I’m a Ph.D. economist,” she said, “but it doesn’t take that to see the difference in impact between the two events. Diana Wortham had about 300 people for Saturday night’s performance. That’s a total gate of about $15,000. The wedding reception had about 130 people and the museum made whatever it charges for an event like that. I guarantee the difference was considerable.” Calculations based on the fee structure published on the art museum’s website indicate that total rental and service fees for a gathering of Saturday’s size would have been about $280.00.)
Ellis said representatives from the theatre’s board and ALO will meet this week to discuss ways of addressing simultaneous-event problems.