Reprinted from The Salt Lake Tribune: “Turning a Crisis into Opportunity” by John Keahay, September 20, 2009
Late last year, a distraught Michael Ballam walked into a board meeting, plopped into his chair and announced, “I have some bad news.”
The founder and general director of the Utah Festival Opera had just come from the historic Utah Theatre — a shuttered movie house that was being converted into a production venue for the northern Utah-based company. Crews, attempting to dig 15 feet down from the orchestra pit tucked beneath the newly expanded stage, had just hit groundwater at 12 feet.
A geyser was bubbling up, filling the pit at about 20 gallons per minute and seemingly dooming the $3.5 million-$4 million renovation.
In the long run, the watery problem didn’t kill the project, But the solution added $500,000 to the price tag, which along with a plummeting economy that was stifling fundraising efforts, forced the cancellation of the 2009 summer schedule of shows planned for the venue.
“In some ways it was a blessing,” said Ballam. The half-million-dollar fix helped designers create a larger, deeper space for the mechanical innards of a complex organ system. This is seen as a distinctive feature of the restored theater that eventually will feature opera, plays, recitals and movies, including silent films.
And the unwelcome water started arts officials thinking about an environmentally pleasing, cost-saving solution for heating and cooling the theater — geothermal energy instead of natural gas.
But first, workers had to solve the immediate problem of the orchestra pit flood. They installed a rubber membrane — below water level — at 15 feet down and then poured 4 feet of concrete to make a “boat” that essentially floats. This keeps the space dry, and it allowed the organ’s inner workings to be installed. The organ console will sit several feet away on an automatic lift in the orchestra pit. During productions, it can be raised and lowered as needed. In addition, a grand piano can be moved onto the lift for the same purpose.
“It’s like the Radio City Music Hall [in New York City], except there the organ comes in and out of the wall,” said Ballam.
As it turned out, the water was the least of the Utah Theatre’s problems. The nation’s economic crisis and its effect on stock portfolios has dulled contributors’ enthusiasm and cut the Utah Festival Opera market-based endowment in half. This has put the renovation on hold, and it could take a few more years before the theater once again comes alive.
“The spirt’s willing, but the bank account’s weak,” said Richard Anderson, Festival Opera’s board vice chairman.
Stalled plans for the theater are ambitious. It is much smaller, at 350 seats, than the main Utah Festival Opera venue, the 1,140-seat Ellen Eccles Theatre on Logan’s Main Street. Ballam said the theater is a perfect facility for launching smaller-scale operas — think intimate Mozart works versus mammoth productions, such as Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.”
If additional cash is found, “we could open it on a limited basis next season by showing films,” Ballam said. “That would take $1 million. Another million, and we can finish the lobby.” Still another million would buy the inner workings of a backstage “fly” system that raises and lowers scenery. Ultimately, the balcony could be expanded, raising the number of seats to 500.
“We’ll do it in phases,” the general director said. Meanwhile, the Utah Opera Festival, despite hard financial times, plans a full 2010 summer season of five operas and musicals around the corner in the Eccles Theatre, plus all of the associated educational activities. The festival staged 130 events during the 2009 summer season — a tradition that goes back to its inception in 1993.
During the past summer, the festival sold 21,000 tickets to five shows over four-and-a-half weeks, generating $870,000 of its $2.3 million operating budget. The balance is raised through philanthropy.
The Utah Theatre’s season-ending groundwater issue, while a minor disaster, has led the opera company to what could eventually become a long-term, cash-saving alternative. If the water pressure was powerful enough to create a bubbling geyser in the orchestra pit, then something must be driving it.
In this case, an aquifer, fed by subterranean runoff from the mountains to the east, sits another 200 feet below, exerting its pressure upward.
After Ballam walked into the board meeting to deliver his bad news, vice chairman Anderson was struck by a thought. Could the deep aquifer be tapped and, using geothermal technology, could the resulting green energy be used to heat and cool the Utah Theatre?
The aquifer’s water probably is a consistent 50 to 55 degrees, summer or winter.
Anderson uses that technology to heat and cool his home 10 miles south of Logan. His small system takes water from a free-flowing spring, runs its through a heat exchanger and, can manage his indoor climate at a comfortable level whether the temperature outside is 20 below zero or 100 degrees above.
To do the same for the Utah Theatre would require the drilling of two wells adjacent to the building in downtown Logan — one for extracting naturally heated water from the aquifer, another to return it into the subterranean cavity. A commercial heat exchanger would transfer heat from the aquifer water to a liquid within the exchanger, and that would be used to provide heat or cool the theater.
“Of course, you need electricity to run a compressor and the pumps to move the water around,” said Anderson, “but you don’t need electricity or natural gas to heat or cool the theater. There would be no flame [from a pilot light] in the building; no carbon-monoxide detector is necessary.”
The cost would be $10,000 for each of the two wells, $50,000-$75,000 for the compressor and heat-exchange system — no more than for a conventional system, said festival Managing Director Gary Griffin.
Ballam, a world-class opera singer who performs in many Utah Festival productions, loves the geothermal idea beyond its long-term cost- and energy-saving benefits.
“It’s not noisy,” he said. “As an opera singer on stage, you notice when the [traditional furnace] system turns on. It can be distracting.”
Go to the Green Theater Initiative