Friday, April 13, 2012

Kiel Opera House Sings Again


The last time I was inside the Kiel Opera House – newly renovated and rechristened the Peabody Opera House – was during the summer of 1990. On June 1, I along with my buddy Pete and our then-girlfriends attended a KISS concert, part of their post-make-up era Hot In The Shade tour. Consisting of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Carr and Bruce Kulick, the band had previously “unmasked” themselves on once-relevant MTV in 1983. Carr, before passing away from heart cancer in 1991, had replaced Peter Criss after his departure in 1980, while Kulick had become the band’s longtime guitarist starting in 1984 after the short tenures of Vinnie Vincent and Mark St. John. Though a fan of original member “Space” Ace Frehley, who left the band in 1982 to pursue a solo career, and performing without their signature look, it was an electrifying performance of signature songs and stage artistry.

Nevertheless, what impressed the most that evening was the venue itself. Drawn to both its architecture and iconic history, I have maintained since youth an unexplained affinity for the downtown landmark like many St. Louisans. Regardless of subtle yet expected signs of age on the then-56-year old building, it showcased a sophisticated distinctiveness both inside and out:  intricately carved statues that greeted visitors at the entrance, opulently inspired foyers and staircases and a spaciously acoustic main hall combined for an incomparable sensory experience. Such characteristics gave the place a distinguished aura only a few places in the city – The Fox, American (now Roberts Orpheum) – could match, complementing rather than diluting St. Louis’ verdant architectural landscape.

When it was announced only a year later, in 1991, that the Opera House would close as part of the demolition and replacement of the adjacent Kiel Auditorium (currently Scottrade Center), a heartbreaking sense of loss overwhelmed made only worse by the ensuing 20-year redevelopment hell that followed. [Read about that saga in my essay here.] Mercifully, that sad chapter came to a magnificent end two decades later on October 1, 2011, with a grand reopening marketed as “An Encore 77 Years In The Making."

Thanks to the equally radiant Janet Taylor, we attended William Shatner’s one-man show, Shatner’s World:  We Just Live In It, on April 12. Approaching the front of the Peabody, a familiar sight greeted:  the limestone bear statues. A tradition kept, two new beautifully sculpted statues placed at the 14th Street entrance stoically occupy their rightful place alongside their more renowned siblings at the main entrance on Market Street. Once inside, vintage ornate aesthetics and modern enhancements harmonize for a consummate sensory experience:  the marble staircases and pillars, high ceilings displaying original chandeliers and light fixtures matched with updated environmental, plumbing and electrical systems. The scenery is even more breathtaking entering the main theater, the flowing burgundy drapery and fresh plush seating mingling eloquently in the soft light with the cream d├ęcor and retouched gold leaf trim.

Chock full of personal narrative and reminiscences both comedic and dramatic, the evening had an air of direct intimacy between storyteller and captive audience. And like many of the performances that have graced its stage, including Mr. Shatner’s, the reborn Opera House is a masterpiece set to reclaim its place among the architecture of downtown St. Louis.

©2012 Steve Sagarra