Minnesota Opera betting on a small, versatile venue in the hopping North Loop
By Rohan Preston : Star Tribune : FEBRUARY 6, 2019
The Minnesota Opera, known for staging grand productions in the 1,900-seat Ordway Center in St. Paul, announced Wednesday that it had acquired the 350-person Lab Theater, in Minneapolis’ North Loop.
The deal, which was finalized Tuesday, gives the organization another arrow in its quiver as it aims to diversify audiences and artists alike.
“It sounds like just a real estate transaction,” said Jeninne McGee, an opera board member and senior vice president at Ameriprise. “But the Lab is really the central hub for activities that make opera inclusive, vibrant and relevant to the world we live in today.”
Financials were not disclosed, but the venue cost the opera “as much as a production,” said opera president and general director Ryan Taylor, who took the helm at the organization in 2016. That would put the price in the ballpark of $1.5 to $2 million.
A leader in commissioning and creating new American operas — including Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night” from 2011 — Minnesota Opera is signaling growing interest in staging intimate and experimental new operas.
Under Taylor’s leadership, the organization presented an edgy chamber opera last summer at the 500-seat Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis. Written in 2016 by American composer Gregory Spears, “Fellow Travelers” is set during the 1950s “lavender scare,” when gay men and lesbians were surveilled and fired en masse from the U.S. government. Taylor wouldn’t say explicitly whether the opera intends to fill its new property with similar projects.
The North Loop is already home to the opera’s headquarters and rehearsal space. In fact, the organization often uses the theater-next-door for its Project Opera youth training program, with six public performances slated for this very weekend. Opera leaders hinted at intentions of expanding learning programs in the new space. “It’s really about keeping opera alive for this century and the next,” McGee said.
Importantly, the opera intends to make the Lab available to other arts groups, including Twin Cities theaters and dance companies. “This gives us an opportunity to continue to serve the broader community while growing our own footprint,” Taylor said.
A neighborhood welcome
The purchase is being welcomed by prominent voices in the North Loop, an area filled with chic condos and hopping bars and restaurants.
Realtor Fritz Kroll, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood for 15 years, said “it’s good to see a cultural institution invest in the neighborhood, especially one as well regarded as the Minnesota Opera. As residents, we’re hungry for entertainment options.”
Ardent arts patron Sylvia Kaplan, another longtime North Loop resident, is thrilled by the idea of “continuing to walk to shows” at the Lab Theater. “Whenever we go there, there’s always interesting people onstage and in the audience.”
Built in a 6,000-square foot warehouse, the Lab Theater first opened in 1988 as the Guthrie Lab, the second stage of the nation’s flagship regional theater company. Under the Guthrie’s stewardship — the Guthrie rented the building from a limited liability ownership group — it served as a venue for many memorable productions including a searing 2005 presentation of “Macbeth” by Britain’s Out of Joint theater company.
When the Guthrie moved to its $125 million riverfront complex in 2006, independent producer Mary Kelley Leer took over the Lab space, filling it with theater, dance and burlesque acts. Leer said she’s thrilled the theater will be kept in the performing arts family, especially given the North Loop neighborhood’s rapid development. “I’m just glad that it won’t be turned into underground parking for a condo building,” she said.
The opera has asked Leer to continue booking the space through at least May 2020.
The acquisition comes after other Twin Cities arts venues, including Intermedia Arts, Red Eye and the Soap Factory, went the way of the dodo in the past year. Buying the Lab means sparing the theater from a similar fate, Taylor said.
“We’re the next-door neighbor of this space and we do use it from time to time,” he said. “We didn’t want to see it going away for us, either.”