NEWPORT, R.I. — In its heyday, the stage at Newport’s Opera House hosted everything from performances of vaudeville and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to appearances by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Now, one of the nation’s oldest opera houses is undergoing an $18 million renovation after spending decades as a movie theater. The nonprofit group that owns it hopes to make it into a centerpiece of live performance and a gathering place for the seaside resort town already known around the world for its jazz and folk festivals.
The Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center is due to open in December, in celebration of its 150th anniversary. The people behind it hope the 700-seat venue will become a new destination for audiences and artists, and provide a place to keep the music alive in Newport year-round.
“There really isn’t anything like this. It’s totally unique,” Alison Vareika, chair of the center’s board, said during a tour of the building.
While thousands of music lovers flock to the city every summer for the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival, there are limited venues for live music, said Jay Sweet, the festivals’ executive producer. Because of those limitations, they are always on the hunt for more places that can host musicians during a festival weekend, he said.
“We could definitely use more capacity to explore other unique events,” Sweet said, adding that a venue with the history of the Opera House behind it is an added attraction. “Having it set up specifically for music is a real positive for the city.”
Opera Houses were built across the country in the mid- to late 1800s as a dedicated performance space used by the town for all kinds of public gatherings, according to Ken Stein, president and CEO of the League of Historic American Theatres. They later gave way to vaudeville houses, then movie palaces, he said.
The Newport Opera House opened in 1867, two years…