Gulfshore Playhouse, pop-up opera change Naples downtown look this year

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

Even if we don't set foot in a theater, we will see more of the performing arts just by being in Naples this year: 

Two organizations responsible for that high visibility have been generating a good deal of suspense already: 

  • The hope that walls will finally begin to rise for Gulfshore Playhouse's new complex.
  • Curiosity about the new venue and celebrities for Opera Naples' Festival Under the Stars.

The first marks the culmination of a dream that's been a long time coming for Gulfshore Playhouse, which was incorporated here in 2004. The second is a gamble that turned  pandemic restrictions into a wildly successful outdoor festival for Opera Naples last year.

Bricks and mortar ahead

Kristen Coury, founder and artistic director of Gulfshore Playhouse, would be the first to admit she didn't approach the second calendar year potentially dominated by a pandemic, holding much hope. But 2021 turned out to be full of good news, she said. 

First and foremost, she was delighted to get Actors Equity approval for two plays indoors, so Gulfshore Playhouse could offer a two-play winter season of "Love Letters" and "Maytag Virgin," with married couples in the two-actor plays.

One step closer:Gulfshore Playhouse breaks ground on new theater in Naples

AND:New Gulfshore Playhouse theater to open in 2023

"I don't know of another professional theater in the country that got that number of approvals. That is for me one of the hugest happinesses of the year." said Coury, who said she unsuccessfully scouted outdoor venues. "Producing outside is complicated. There's the wind. The noise. It's just very expensive."

A view of the lobby bar in the new Gulfshore Playhouse state-of-the-art Baker Theatre and Education Center, set to open in fall 2023 near the intersection of First Avenue South and Goodlette-Frank Road.

Even with married couples in the two plays, everyone from sound technicians to ushers had to be squeaky clean, including a series of cabaret performances that didn't need Equity. So the theater set up an agreement with NCH for regular testing. 

"We were testing people three times a week," she said. "But we ended up doing 47  nights of performances and keeping 7,000 people safe."

"It was a blessing," she said of the season. But she was about to get another: $32 million for her capital campaign, which cemented plans to break ground for its own theater on Goodlette Road a block from U.S. 41 South, flanking the new Naples Design District

"We stopped fundraising totally between March and October of 2020," Coury recalled. It seemed unsafe; it seemed impolite in a time of worry. But when the stock market began rising at the end of 2020, major gifts, taking the example of a $5 million gift from board chairman Steve Akin and his wife, Jane, began coming in.

Then, supporters Patty and Jay Baker, who had initially offered a $10 million matching grant, offered a second one.

Kristen Coury, Gulfshore Playhouse founder, CEO, and producing artistic director, and Joel Markus, the venue's chief operating officer and managing director.

'It took us four years to make the first match of $10 million. It took us six weeks to make the second," Coury marveled. The groundbreaking was Dec. 1. But the actual construction begins sometime in the next 10 days. 

"We're now mobilized and ready to start construction," she said. Construction completion target: Late summer 2023. Occupancy goal: January 2024.

The adjacent parking garage, for which the theater offered land if the city provided the garage, is awaiting city requests for proposals from design-build companies. A goal is to tie the theater, via underground passage, to the garage. 

"Hopefully it all gets finished by fall of 2023," she said.

Information:Gulfshore Playhouse.org or (239) 261-7529

More starlight, please

Cambier Park turns into an opera house of — figuratively — diamond quality for a week in March.

That might be said because its stars, three tenors, include some international gems:

  • Joseph Calleja, who swept the house off its feet at the premiere Festival Under the Stars, March 11
  • Ramon Vargas, a familiar Metropolitan Opera lead, in the Puccini opera, "Tosca" March 13 and 15
  • Javier Camarena, who has been cheered to encores three times at the Met, March 16

(All Cambier Park performances are at 7 p.m; seats are $28 to VIP tables of six, $900.) 

Starry, starry nights:Opera Naples creates new, compact season under the stars at Baker Park

But the diamond status is actually because the festival is moving to one: Cambier Park's softball field. That move, after the festival's  2021 debut in Baker Park, promises relief from Naples Airport jet fumes, restricted seating capacity and passing park patrons, such as one with a dog that began barking after an opening night aria by Calleja.

The Maltese tenor took the intrusion in stride: "Everyone's a critic!" he quipped. 

The audience and orchestra ready Thursday for "La Traviata," the first opera at Baker Park, which plays on the stage in front of the screen.

Still, asides won't be possible during Puccini's high-drama thriller, "Tosca," which anchors the festival with two performances at 7 p.m. March 13 and 15. Opera Naples resident artists also bring in their own evening of drama in a close-to-concert version of Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town" at 7 p.m. March 14.

Still more starlight:Year of big names for Opera Naples with Anna Netrebko

The Eighth Street South green space sits well away from the major park walking path. It also has access to the Norris Center for potential dressing rooms. Nearby restaurants offer an ease of dining with a quick stroll to the park, Sondra Quinn, executive director for Opera Naples, pointed out. (There are some food options being planned at the park as well.) 

Extremely important: Its capacity allows the 800 patrons Opera Naples hopes for nightly.

"We could have stayed in Baker Park, but we could have had only 500 seats this year," Quinn explained.

"And we're headed bigger, not smaller," added Development Director Carla Calavitta. 

That's apparent in the scheduling, nearly double what it was for 2021. Last year, the company faced people wanting to buy tickets on the spot, and having to expand audience space on short notice. It was a delightful sort of problem, Quinn said, but not one they wanted to repeat.

Big music in 2022:'Hamilton' stars, Beethoven, bebop trumpet

Artistic Director Ramón Tebar also wants Opera Naples Festival II to bring in entire families and feature different locations. So 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, March 13, is an Opera Naples Family Day at the park. It is free.

From left to right, Ramón Tebar, Opera Naples artistic and music director, Sondra Quinn, Opera Naples executive director, and Joseph Calleja, operatic tenor, laugh while they pose for a portrait at Baker Park in Naples on Monday, March 1, 2021.

Opera scenes for children will being planned. There are crafts, games and a cos-play area where kids can try on various opera costumes for photo ops.  

What about costumes for their parents? They hadn't thought of that, Quinn said, "but we'll definitely consider it."

And finally, two festival events have been set in the Wang Opera Center:

  • The gripping contemporary opera about the longest-held American prisoner of the Vietnam War, "Glory Denied," March 18 and 20, $36-$99
  • An evening of Latin music March 19 from Vargas, a native of Mexico, with cabaret seating and refreshments. Tables range from café size for two to tables of 10: $200 to $1,000

Tickets go on sale Monday, Jan. 10, for Millennium Club members, Jan. 24 for Opera Naples members and Jan. 31 to the general public. 

Information: operanaples.org or 239-963-9050

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.