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Reopening brings new life into Cheboygan’s historic opera house

Tony Johnson

Since March 2020, the Cheboygan Opera House has been quiet. Now, it’s officially waking up, and music is finally returning to its stage.

For the first time since the pandemic, the current artist in residence, Nathan Towne, is coming back to the opera house.

Towne said he’s been “dying” to get back into the opera house. With the exception of the new LED lights, and a few technical changes, he said the opera house is just as he remembers.

“I’ve been dreaming of this moment coming back to play, even if it’s just a lesson or to noodle around for a few minutes because the room is so nice,” Towne said. “The room is ripe for music and theater -- maybe magic, too.”

Towne sat down on the floor of the stage with his guitar, playing a Spanish guitar melody. His music could be heard throughout the entire auditorium, without a mic.

Kathy Johnson is the executive director of the Cheboygan Area Arts Council. She said the community continued to support the opera house, even during its closure. People attended virtual performances and membership stayed steady.

“I think people miss it more than they knew they would,” Johnson said. “I hear a lot of that. There’s been a push of people wanting to know when we’re reopening and when our shows will be.”

The pandemic was just one more challenge in the opera house’s story.

The structure was originally built in 1877. It has survived through two fires, a decades-long closure, the threat of demolition -- and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

While other art venues feared permanent closure due to the pandemic, the shutdown was a time for rebuilding for the opera house in Cheboygan.

“I knew the opera house would be here and will be here long after we are,” Johnson said. “We just felt like it was our job to steward it anytime it's dark like that and keep it going, keep all the systems moving, even when there’s nobody on the stage.”

With the help of grant funding, Johnson said the opera house has been able to fix the ventilation, update auditorium lights and install a new projector on stage.

As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, programming and event planning has already started back up.

Johnson said the opera house has been reopening in stages, but she’s excited to have people back in the auditorium.

Johnson’s son, Sam, also returned to the opera house for the first time in months for a piano lesson with Towne.

Sam said he feels fortunate to have access to the opera house, especially since he can practice with a Steinway piano, on a hundred-year-old stage.

“Having my mom run the place is -- what do you call it, nepotism?” Sam said, chuckling a little. “It’s just great for the community, too, because anyone can come in here. Music is just something everyone can bond over.”

Since the pandemic, Johnson and the staff have been opening up the opera house in a new way to the community. People can come in to practice their music and even record performances, using the hall’s “amazing” acoustics.

Stage manager Dennis Despain said it’s important to have people return to this space.

“We need to get together again,” he said. “The opera house is probably the best way to bring people together again, with entertainment, and that’s what we’re here for.”

Welcoming people in to share and bond over the arts is just the next step, in the opera house’s journey of perseverance.

Moving forward, Johnson said she hopes the role of the opera house will continue to expand in the community and even build upon some of the changes made during the pandemic.

To learn more about the history and programming of the opera house, visit the Cheboygan Opera House website.

This story was produced as part of the Michigan News Group Internship. A collaboration between WCMU and eight community newspapers. Teresa Homsi is interning this summer at the Huron Daily Tribune.