Fort Greene

A privileged peek into the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s storied past

April 25, 2016 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Welcome to BAM's Peter Jay Sharp Building. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
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The play’s the thing.

And BAM’s the perfect place for it.

Brooklyn Academy of Music, America’s oldest performing arts center, is in the limelight these days because the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is in residency there.

The renowned British theater company’s “King and Country” cycle of four of the Bard’s History Plays has drawn wide acclaim — especially for a terrific performance of Falstaff by Antony Sher and a riveting portrayal of Richard II by David Tennant, who has a big fan base thanks to his role as the Tenth Doctor in the BBC TV series “Doctor Who.”

Coinciding with the RSC’s residency, BAM recently offered tours of its historic Fort Greene buildings, giving theater aficionados a privileged peek into the beloved Brooklyn cultural institution’s storied past. The Brooklyn Eagle was allowed to tag along with them.

Participants in a Sunday, April 24 tour stood on the stage where famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso sang in “Faust” in 1908.

They stepped into the opera box where Princess Diana sat during a 1989 Welsh National Opera production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

The stage and opera box are located at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, which is in the Peter Jay Sharp Building at 30 Lafayette Ave.

The opera house, with a maximum 2,100-seat capacity, has an orchestra pit in front of the stage.

The Canadian Opera Company’s director, Robert Lepage, had a swimming pool built in the orchestra pit for “The Nightingale and Other Short Fables,” a compilation of Stravinsky works, tour guide Louie Fleck said. The singers dressed in wet suits. The orchestra sat on the stage.


It all started on Montague Street  

BAM’s history began long before the legendary Caruso appeared at the opera house.

As Fleck, who is the BAM Hamm Archives’ manager, explained, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was originally a Brooklyn Heights institution. It opened in 1861 on Montague Street where the grocery store Garden of Eden is now located.

The academy’s founders initially limited programming to “high-level” performing arts such as opera, symphonies and classical music; they considered theater too “low-brow,” he said.

It soon became apparent that high-brow art didn’t fill the academy’s seats. Space at the Montague Street building was rented out for other kinds of performances — for instance, a horse show that was a “precursor to the circus,” Fleck said.

Also, in the academy’s first year in operation, the head honchos changed their minds about theater and decided to allow performances of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Brooklyn Heights building burned down in a 1903 fire. The land was sold, and a new academy building was constructed in Fort Greene.

The choice of 30 Lafayette Ave. as the location for the new building was logical because of the site’s proximity to Fulton Street, which at that time was “the Broadway of Brooklyn,” with a multitude of theaters, Fleck said.

The music hall morphed into movie theaters

The academy building now known as the Peter Jay Sharp Building is a neo-Italian Renaissance design by Herts & Tallant.

According to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 1978 designation report for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Historic District, this architecture firm was known for its “careful attention to acoustics which made their theater designs technically outstanding.”

The opera house in the building is still in use today. The building originally also had a 1,600-seat music hall, which in 1999 was divided into four movie auditoriums for BAM Rose Cinemas.

Sunday’s movie screenings hadn’t yet begun, so tour-goers were able to step into Theater 3, where the proscenium arch of the former music hall can be seen.

They also got a look at second-floor space that had been a ballroom in the early decades of the Lafayette Avenue building’s existence. This space was converted into BAMcafé, a transformation that also took place in 1999.

After the ballroom ceased to be a ballroom, it was rented to a school called the Brooklyn Academy for Boys. That was after World War II, when many middle-class Brooklynites moved to the suburbs and BAM fell on hard times.

“The audience was evaporating,” Fleck said.

BAM’s financial outlook was so bleak that at one point, there wasn’t enough money for a proper paint job. The entire building’s interiors were painted battleship gray, he said.


Harvey Lichtenstein to the rescue

Fleck told tour-goers about Harvey Lichtenstein, who became BAM’s executive director in 1967, and his revival of BAM by turning it into a venue for experimental work.

Lichtenstein had spent time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, so he knew dancer Merce Cunningham and other avant-garde artists. Soon after Lichtenstein’s arrival at BAM, he programmed a month-long Merce Cunningham series.

Lichtenstein created the “BAM bus,” which shuttled Manhattan residents to and from the theater.

Artists who turned BAM into a buzz-worthy place for experimental theater included Robert Wilson, whose work was “non-narrative,” Fleck said. Wilson’s 12-hour opera, “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin,” premiered at BAM in 1973.

In the 1980s, Lichtenstein created the Next Wave Festival, an annual lineup of cutting-edge works that continues into the present.

One of the festival’s early standouts was Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” performed in 1984, an epic opera with no intermission.


The Majestic Theater became BAM Harvey

There were times when Lichtenstein did the seemingly impossible — like convincing the city to spend $5 million in the 1980s to fix up the abandoned Majestic Theater at 651 Fulton St. for BAM.

Distinguished director Peter Brook wanted to stage his nine-hour adaptation of an Indian epic, “The Mahabharata,” at BAM. But he wanted theater space that looked “rough,” Fleck said.

The renovation was done in such a way that the theater still looked like “a beautiful ruin” when it was finished, Fleck said.

“The Mahabharata” opened there in 1987. Right afterwards, Brook staged “The Cherry Orchard” at the theater.

The 834-seat venue is now called BAM Harvey Theater in Lichtenstein’s honor. A portrait by Chuck Close of Lichtenstein hangs in the lobby.

The Majestic opened as a 2,300-seat theater in 1904, Fleck said. Its first production was “The Wizard of Oz,” which was a variety show.

Because the tour took place early in the afternoon, participants had time to step onto BAM Harvey’s stage before the audience arrived for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s matinee of “Henry V.”

The beautiful glassy-looking stage floor was bare of props at that hour. But props could be glimpsed, tucked away in the theater’s wings, including a suit of gleaming armor shaped like a horse.   

Ryan Gastelum, a BAM production supervisor who’s working on the “King and Country” plays, showed tour-goers interesting details of the set design.

For instance, there were curtains made of brass-ball chains hanging from the ceiling. The chains serve as a backdrop on which images of Westminster Abbey are projected.

London’s Barbican — where Royal Shakespeare Company used the “King and Country” set before visiting China — is a much bigger theater than BAM Harvey, Gastelum said.   

“The RSC team was great about how to make it all fit,” he said.

The “King and Country” plays run through May 1.

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