Hurricane Katrina dealt New Orleans' arts community a threefold blow when the grandes dames of downtown theater venues — the Saenger, the Orpheum and the Mahalia Jackson Theater — were shuttered, seemingly indefinitely. This week, one of the triad makes a triumphant return.
The Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park has anchored the historic Tremé neighborhood since 1973, the year after Jackson died. The approximately 2,300-capacity theater will be home base to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Orleans Opera Association and the New Orleans Ballet Association, each of which will enjoy — and to a degree depend on — the theater's unique facilities to bring off performances on a scale competitive with the production values of companies from much bigger cities.
Following the 2005 levee failures, the Mahalia sustained extensive damage. More than 14 feet of floodwater wrecked its electrical and mechanical systems. From the outside, a shattered picture window looked like a black eye. Initially, the mayor's office estimated it would take a year to reopen the space, but repairs were not begun immediately. Three years later, the project has cost more than $20 million, with roughly $9 million pledged from FEMA so far.
"It was a first-class theater before. Now, it's a 21st-century first-class theater," says Bill Rouselle, a spokesman for Arts Center Enterprises (ACE), the San Antonio-based management company that has taken on stewardship of the theater for the city, from booking to daily operations. Rouselle is also president and CEO of Bright Moments, a public relations firm that represents many city projects. ACE will subcontract the theater from the city, saving New Orleans (according to the mayor's office) an estimated $1 million a year in operating costs. Among the renovations are a new orchestra shell and portable sprung floor for the LPO and NOBA, digital projection equipment for video, fully automated state-of-the-art lighting and rigging systems, and a brand-new stage-lift mechanism for both the stage and the orchestra pit.
The 2009 season is laden with star power, including performances by Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic, but the real draw for locals may be the homecoming of the local troupes that have been toughing it out in smaller venues or on the road for the past three years. During the interim, the groups have become a bit leaner, meaner and more focused on their endeavors. They also have benefited from new relationships and support from arts organizations around the country. The New Orleans Opera spent its post-Katrina seasons squeezing onto the stage at Tulane University's Dixon Hall. The LPO made do by rotating performances among concert spaces a quarter the size of the Mahalia Jackson Theater. NOBA moved its programming to Tulane, but had to alter pieces to suit the smaller space. After three years of scrimping, scaling down and making do, the artistic directors are finally able to strut their stuff at full capacity. It will be interesting to see what are the creative results now that they are back home.
For now, a gala opening week is planned, beginning with a free all-star concert Thursday night featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright, Philip Manuel, Michael Ward, Ingrid Lucia, Fredy Omar and Jeremy Davenport. Visit www.mahaliajacksontheater.com for a full season schedule.
The New Orleans All-Star Revue
7 p.m. Thu., Jan. 8
Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts, 801 N. Rampart St., 525-1062
Admission is free, but seating is reserved. Tickets are limited to four per person.