The Manitou Opera House has always looked as good as it sounds.
So when residents of this south-central town added some modern amenities to its 1930s-era vintage theatre, they were determined to keep it that way.
No one will ever guess 86 years had passed between the new addition and the original Manitou Opera House, built in an Arts and Crafts style with a classic proscenium arch.
“They look like they were built at the same time,” is now talk around town about a job that used matching materials, from the roof’s cedar shingles to its drip cap and facia and gleaming hardwood floors inside.
The addition now makes the popular performing arts centre fully wheelchair accessible, adding a spacious foyer, new kitchen, washrooms, and more meeting space.
Looks mattered for this renovation, but so did ensuring the sound lived up to its opera house stature.
Choral directors rave about its acoustics. Vocalists and musicians from all over Canada who have performed here have been so impressed with the hall’s sound quality they’ve talked about it on national broadcasts.
“It is wonderful to perform here. The acoustics are second to none,” said local musician Al Thorliefson, who serves as an executive member of the Manitou Opera House management committee. The reno has added only one doorway where a window was located. That won’t impact the place’s auditory quality.
“We expect it will not have any effect at all,” he said.
The renovations cost nearly $900,000 with some of the funds coming from two grants totalling $200,000. The rest of it from local wallets.
“It really just shows the commitment of people in the community to this building and what it means to the community,” adds Thorliefson.
Manitou has long been dedicated to its opera house. The present-day site is actually its second. The first, built in 1908, burned to the ground in January of 1930. It was replaced later that year on the original foundation at a cost of about $15,000.
If that price tag seemed high in 1930, it was deemed well worth it by the countless performing singers, dancers, choirs and musicians and their audiences. It also became a favoured meeting place for celebrations and dances.
But in the early 1990s, there were mutterings about bringing down the old house that was proving costly to heat.
A chorus of Manitou voices drowned out that idea.
In 1995, Manitou incorporated a foundation to raise funds and encourage volunteers to help restore and improve the site. Two years later, Manitou formed a management committee to care for the site. The opera house has operated in the black ever since, with more investments made over the years, including electrical and fire code upgrades, and the addition of geothermal heating and a theatre lighting system.
The local arts community remains committed as ever to keeping its opera house alive with music.
Between September 2012 and August 2013 there were bookings on 213 days for music and dance lessons, rehearsals, practices, meetings and performance, bringing an estimated 12,000 adults and children through its doors.
Candlewick Theatre and Danceworks promote theatre and dance through children’s programs here. It is where the Borderline Singers, a community choir, practises and performs, donating proceeds from their concerts to community projects. It’s home to an annual fall concert kicking off the local honey garlic festival as well as the Pembina Valley Music Festival committee’s annual choral, vocal, piano, band, and speech arts festival.
It’s also where Manitou gathers for ecumenical church services throughout the year, and where winter night coffee houses offering free entertainment remain popular as ever.
Musician volunteers hosting the coffee house have just wrapped up their 25th season. The music didn’t stop during the renovation.
“It’s become an integral part of the community,” says Bill Howatt, sound technician for the opera house and long-serving musician at the coffee houses. This event plays an important role for charitable organizations too, that are able to fundraise by serving food at events, he noted.
Many locals have learned to sing, dance, play musical instruments and act over the years, enriching all those listening and watching.
“Every community has this talent,” he said. “We’re just fortunate enough to have a venue that pulls it out of the woodwork.”
And what fine woodwork it is.