WATERVILLE — After over a year-long hiatus, the Waterville Opera House is back in business. 

The Opera House Association is wrapping up a $5 million renovation project geared toward modernizing, yet preserving the historical integrity of, the 110-year-old building.

Citing the association’s commitment to preserving the historic, cultural centerpiece while taking the facilities into the 21st century, the Waterville Opera House was awarded 2012 Community Service Project of the Year by the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

Shannon Haines, executive director of Maine Film Center, said that when the opera house temporarily closed, downtown businesses felt the impact and after it reopened as a bigger and better venue it’s been drawing more people than ever to the Waterville’s center. 

“It’s one of Waterville’s most important cultural aspects,” said Haines, who nominated the project for the chamber award. Haines is also the former director of Waterville Main Street, which works to promote the downtown as an economic and social hub.

Built in 1902, the opera house has been a gathering spot for years, hosting not only the performing arts but community events, such as graduation ceremonies and the inauguration of the mayor. 

Executive Director Diane Bryan said the association turned down options to gut out the building or tear it down, in order to bring it up to modern standards.

While those options may have been cheaper or more efficient, Bryan said, the association was not willing to cut corners and lose historic value.

But the historic building was showing its age and needed updates to keep its place as a community meeting place and venue for the arts.

She said the association had a wish list of improvements they wanted. They needed more seating, the previous dressing rooms did not have sufficient space or even running water, the stage and dressing rooms were not handicapped accessible and the building had little modern technology.

Then the opera house received a $2 million matching donation from the Alfond Foundation, which was successfully matched by $2 million in grants and donations and another $300,000 from the foundation, to erect a set-construction building.

She said they originally thought the renovations would cost $4 million but ended up totaling closer to $5 million, making it the opera house’s largest fundraiser.

Construction wrapped up in late April after more than a year, and Bryan said she could not be happier with the new opera house.

The building’s renovations include new balcony seating, new flooring, restored woodwork, new technical equipment, a freight elevator and renovated dressing rooms.

Bryan said the previous dressing rooms were “barely adequate.” 

The renovated ones are expanded, have a “star room” that a headliner act can use as a personal dressing room and has a personal bathroom and chandelier.

Previously the theater had hand-drawn curtain; now, backstage lighting and curtains are run by digital controls.

The house also has a movie screen and the equipment to project digital and 35 mm films. 

Bryan said she loves to see the community gather in the new space.

“It’s fun to talk about the project, but what’s exciting is when you come in and see a packed house and you feel the electricity,” she said.

She said the community showed how much it valued the opera house when it provided such overwhelming financial support.

Bryan said the project succeeded because the community decided to support it.

“I think the community members should be congratulating themselves,” she said. “I couldn’t have raised the money myself.”

Kaitlin Schroeder— 861-9252
kschroeder@mainetoday.com