Wilmington’s Grand Opera House finds new stage to shine light on the arts

The Grand Opera House's Winter in Wilmington light show at night

The Grand Opera House's Winter in Wilmington light show has helped connect with its audience in a new way while indoor performances are shuttered due to the pandemic. (Moonloop Photography/Grand Opera House)

The stage is dark and the seats are empty at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. The building that usually hosts national touring acts and performances of the Delaware Symphony has been quiet this year as the pandemic continues to complicate live productions

“It’s really hard to be a performing arts organization that can’t do performances,” said Mark Fields, executive director of The Grand.

Over the summer, the organization hosted a series of drive-in concerts at the Wilmington Riverfront, near the same area where President-elect Joe Biden celebrated his White House victory after Election Day. While that effort kept shows going during the warmer summer months, colder temperatures sent organizers back to the drawing board again.

The Grand Opera House in downtown Wilmington has entertained audiences for more than 140 years, but in-person performances have been canceled since the pandemic started in March. (Moonloop Photography/Grand Opera House)

“When winter rolled around, we realized we still weren’t going to be able to do anything indoors. And so we came up with this idea of a drive-thru light show at the Riverfront,” Fields said.

The drive-thru experience features more than 40 exhibits, all synced up with music and dancing lights. More than 8,000 vehicles passed through the display in its first four weekends.

“People are coming from all over the four-state region. We see as many license plates from Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Maryland as we do from Delaware,” Fields said. “Obviously people are willing to travel to have some sort of lighthearted experience at the holidays.”

The Grand Opera House’s Winter in Wilmington light show has helped connect with its audience in a new way while indoor performances are shuttered due to the pandemic. (Moonloop Photography/Grand Opera House)

The hope is that some of those travelers will return to see shows at the Grand once that’s permitted again. Fields said that could be for outdoor shows in the spring and summer of 2021, or possibly traditional indoors performances in the fall of ‘21. “This is a new potential audience for us. They know how to get here. They know what we do, and now we’ll be able to communicate with them about the other things that we offer for the community.”

The drive-thru income for The Grand — $25 per car — helps, as does new funding from the state. The Grand also expects to get federal aid from the $15 billion “Save our Stages” section of the COVID relief bill that was approved by Congress earlier this week.

“The financial help will certainly be critical for us to sustain our operation while we remain closed, and will help lay the groundwork for us reopening,” said Fields. “But more important, I think than just the money — as important as the money is — is the recognition of the arts sector as a vital part of the American experience, not just our economy, but our quality of life.”

The Grand Opera House’s Winter in Wilmington light show has helped connect with its audience in a new way while indoor performances are shuttered due to the pandemic. (Moonloop Photography/Grand Opera House)

The state help includes $10 million in grant funding via the CARES Act. Nonprofit arts organizations like The Grand could get up to 35% of their 2019 operating expenses as a grant from the state, up to $300,000.

“The arts are a critical sector of the Delaware economy, and one we can’t replace. Arts organizations have been very hard-hit by the pandemic. This funding will help them survive through the winter,” said Governor John Carney. “I want to thank Delaware’s philanthropic community, particularly Tatiana and Gerret Copeland and the Longwood Foundation, for leading the way in matching these CARES Act funds.”

Though it’s not clear exactly how much The Grand will get from the combined state and federal help, Fields says it won’t be enough. “The Grand had to borrow money from its endowments to remain afloat during this period, of time and for us to get back to the beginning of 2020 and the financial condition we were in there, we estimate we’re going to have to raise about $5 million.”

The Grand Opera House’s Winter in Wilmington light show has helped connect with its audience in a new way while indoor performances are shuttered due to the pandemic. (Moonloop Photography/Grand Opera House)

“The point of that is not to refill our coffers or anything like that. The point is, The Grand annually contributes more than $10 million to the local economy, and for us to be able to get back to the place where we can have that kind of impact on the finances and the economy of Wilmington and Delaware, we have to be healthy again. It’s going to take everybody’s help to get us to the place that we are healthy again.”

In the meantime, Fields said it’s gratifying to see families come through the Riverfront and enjoy a new holiday experience, even if only because the pandemic forced The Grand to get creative.

“The arts are kind of how we feed our souls and our nature and commune with one another as people, and we haven’t been able to do that for a very long time,” he said. “This has been a terrific bit of news to get during the week of Christmas. We’re certainly going to go to our own personal celebrations knowing that some help is on the way, and that more is perhaps coming and [we] just wish for a happier and heartful new year.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal