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West Edge Opera for Lulu at the 16th Street Station



OHA has presented West Edge Opera with a Partners in Preservation Award for its presentation of Alban Berg's Lulu at the 16th Street Station, a Beaux-Arts marvel built by preeminent train station architect Jarvis Hunt in 1912. The station, located near the corners of 16th and Wood streets, was severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but was purchased in 2005 by BUILD as a restoration and redevelopment project, and its buildings are largely intact, including the interlocking tower and ironwork elevated platforms that carried commuter trains of East Bay Electric Lines until 1941. Though the last train passed through in 1994, the station remains an easily recognizable landmark to this day and, probably due to its beauty and inaccessibility, is often broken into and threatened by vandalism.

Prior to 2014, West Edge performed in Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theater and El Cerrito High School's auditorium, but rising rents in traditional facilities was beginning to make the cost of producing operas prohibitive. West Edge therefore began to search for new venues as exciting as its material. The company's first attempt to bring opera to a non-traditional space was its 2014 Festival at Berkeley's Ed Roberts Campus. This success put it on a trajectory toward facilities that could be adapted to serve as performance spaces, leading it to the 16th Street Station. 

For all its beauty and grandeur, the station came with many challenges for a stage production, including bringing in lighting, toilets, chairs, and building a stage. The company put down 5,000 square feet of carpet in an effort to improve the acoustics and decrease the echo in the room. Everything installed inside the station had to be done while preserving the structure. This meant all the lighting equipment, curtains, and the stage had to be set up without affixing anything to the walls, and when the run was over, the venue had to be left as it was found. 

By the end of the three performances, every one of which sold out, more than a thousand guests had been accommodated, and the response from attendees was universally positive, with many expressing disappointment that the station is so rarely open to the public. Of the three operas produced by West Edge in 2015 (the others were located at American Steel and the Oakland Metro), Lulu at the Station proved to offer the best audience experience.

All three 2016 Festival operas will be performed at the 16th Street Station, and West Edge hopes that the venue will ultimately develop into a permanent performance space open to the public, drawing people from all over the Bay Area to West Oakland to experience this important piece of history and architecture. The company is committed to bringing opera, an important and vulnerable historic art form, to the communities of the East Bay and offering access to similarly important but vulnerable historical spaces.