Monday will mark a historic milestone for the Stoughton Opera House.
The venerable three-story brick building on East Main Street, with its iconic clocktower and ornate Opera House, turns 120 years old Feb. 22, and director Bill Brehm has planned a celebration featuring former events coordinator Christina Dollhausen. She’ll perform songs and share stories about the decade that she and Brehm worked together, from 2007-16, in establishing what’s come to be known as “Southern Wisconsin’s most charming theater.”
The event will be streamed live from the Opera House stage for the first time, beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Brehm explained the Opera House now has technology in place to broadcast performances live via the internet, and beginning in March, it will feature live music from the stage Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.
Beginning with Monday’s “birthday party,” Bob Batyko, of Four Lakes Music Collective, will MC the weekly events.
“It’s going to be a test of our equipment,” Brehm told the Hub last week. “It’s going to be the start of a new era at the Opera House with the streaming of live performances.”
The public will be able to watch performances, including Monday’s celebration, by going to the Opera House website, stoughtonoperahouse.com.
Rise from obscurity
The Opera House’s rise from relative obscurity to first-rate performing arts center began with its centennial celebration in February 2001. The event not only marked 100 years since the venue’s opening but also was the crowning of a restoration effort that began in 1983.
Built in 1901, the Opera House was reportedly the pride of the city for its first few decades but gradually slid into such disrepair that it was closed to the public in 1955. Back then, it was a nice auditorium but had been painted a dull gray and showed none of the resplendent color it wears today. By the early ‘80s, the neglected space had become dirty and dingy with broken-out windows and stacks of old files covered with tarps amid pigeon droppings.
There was talk of tearing down the former City Hall, where the auditorium occupies the second floor. Instead a group of volunteers formed the Friends of the Opera House in 1983 and raised $1.75 million in private donations to completely restore the Victorian auditorium. Volunteers donated their skill and labor to install a new heating and air conditioning system, new lighting and a new sound system.
The restoration returned the Opera House to its past splendor, with its original tin ceiling and fire curtain. It was re-established as a performing arts center 20 years ago, but for the first three or four years after opening, city officials didn’t quite know what to do with the restored gem.
“There were definitely some substantial early efforts to get the Opera House rolling again” after the 2001 reopening, Brehm explained, “but they didn’t quite get there.”
“There was something about Christina and I getting together that made it the right team to really launch a new era,” he said. “It was a healthy mix of naiveté about how the business part of it worked and a high degree of enthusiasm about bringing music to the community.”
Brehm had been working as the city’s media services director, with Dollhausen as his administrative assistant. They took charge of operating the 475-seat venue in January 2007 and within a few years were booking 50 to 60 shows a year featuring local, regional and national touring musicians.
Dollhausen recalled that a year or two into their tenure, she and Brehm “started thinking big” and decided to bring well-known artists — Arlo Guthrie, Iris DeMent and Greg Brown, and Del McCoury — to Stoughton’s small stage.
In 15 years, concert revenues increased from about $100,000 and a dozen shows (in 2006) to roughly 80 concerts bringing in more than $800,000 annually before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a hold on live entertainment last year.
“Those big names really put the Opera House on the map,” Dollhausen observed. “There was magic, and people were definitely excited and receptive to it.”
Dollhausen, who moved in 2016 with her family to start a farm near Viroqua, is “really proud” of what she and Brehm accomplished at the Opera House.
“It’s one of those things that I’ll never be able to do again in my life, but I’m so grateful for the experience,” she said. “Bill and I were such a good team.”
“I feel like we got kind of lucky of being in the right place at the right time,” Brehm added.
While the pandemic has shut down live events at the Opera House since last March, Brehm said he and his staff have been busy nonetheless.
He thinks there may have been a “silver lining” to the disruption. It gave him time to plan for improvements, he said, such as renovating first floor offices, installing the new streaming technology and planning how to use it.
The Opera House received a $136,000 grant last year that Brehm used to purchase and install high-end remote cameras around the theater for remote broadcasting from the stage.
“I think we’re going to be well positioned for recovery and we’re going to be here for Stoughton and southern Wisconsin,” he told the Hub. “When live music returns, there will be new features like streaming from the stage and live music on the first floor before the concerts in the theater.”
Mayor Tim Swadley is “excited” about changes to the Opera House and believes they will lead to “a sustainable financial plan for the Opera House moving forward.
“The renovations are going to coincide with the anniversary and will enhance the experience for people who want to come before the show or hang around afterwards for the meet-and-greet,” he said last week.
Swadley said Opera House shows bring an estimated 20,000 visitors to the city each year, and “with concessions and other new revenue streams, we may be able to book larger, more expensive shows.
“Just imagine how much that has helped local businesses,” he said. “I think some may have hung on through the pandemic rather than close their doors knowing that when the Opera House re-opens with live music and audiences, it will be better than before.”