The effort to restore and preserve the National Opera House, a historic landmark in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, is receiving help from Castle of Our Skins, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to amplifying and elevate black art.
Ashleigh Gordon, artistic and executive director and co-founder of Castle of Our Skins, learned about the National Opera House – formerly known as the National Negro Opera House – when she read an article about it last year.
Gordon wanted to know more about it and how she could help.
“There is an amnesia that afflicts so many things, and certainly as it afflicts an awareness of excellence and black art,” she said. “We are now in heightened awareness, but this moment needs to be extended and accustomed to.”
Jonnet Solomon, executive director of the National Opera, bought the house with his friend Miriam White in 2000. Over the years, she asked for help to preserve the house at 7101 Apple St. in Homewood.
The National Historic Site has been named one of Discover America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Solomon wants to restore the house to make it a space to foster talent and help artists support their brands and businesses.
It takes raising $3 million to restore the house, she said. The non-profit organization has managed to raise $2 million so far. Solomon is confident that the last million dollars can be filled.
“In the world of fundraising, that’s not a lot of money and it’s doable,” she said. “We hope to get the last thousand dollars from foundations and the community.”
Preserving the history of the house is Solomon’s driving force. Mary Cardwell Dawson, musician and educator, founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941, the nation’s first permanent African-American opera company. Dawson rented the third floor of the opera house as an office and rehearsal space for the National Negro Opera Company.
Dawson learned to sing in the church choir, then enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music, the only African American in her class, according to the opera’s website. She earned degrees in voice and piano and went on to study at Chicago Musical College in New York with dreams of becoming an opera singer.
When she saw that there were no opportunities for African American opera singers, she took the initiative to provide opportunities for black singers. Some went on to perform in New York, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.
Over time, the organization began to lose money. Dawson died of a stroke in 1962. The opera folded months later. The house received its first historic dedication in 1994.
The story behind the house has Gordon planning to donate 100% of May sales to “Black Composer Miniature Challenge Anthology Vol. 2″ from the house. The digital anthology is a collection of writings of 30-second pieces for solo flute, alto flute, piccolo, harp and/or flute-harp duo.
Gordon saw the opportunity to help showcase the nonprofit and its mission as a natural fit. Castle of Our Skin celebrates black art through music and other arts. The association is also an educational concert series focusing largely on classical music from the African diaspora as well as history, culture and education.
“We need to preserve that history,” Gordon said. “We can no longer risk losing history.”
The collaboration was an important step for Solomon, who said she was delighted to have the opera’s work presented to a wider network. “That’s why we need people to tell our stories,” she said.
“We need people who are advocating to support preservation of this type and historic preservation, and building a legacy and keeping a legacy in the community,” Solomon said. “We need people to defend it and defend it.”
Solomon said community support has been crucial for the nonprofit. She said he had received more than $500,000 in grants from organizations and foundations.
In April, Pittsburgh Opera and the National Opera House announced a long-term programmatic and strategic partnership. The partnership includes the development of music education, arts development and community engagement programs and programs, according to a press release.
“There are so many people in the city who want this to happen successfully,” she said.
After the nonprofit gets a permit for the house, a groundbreaking ceremony will be planned, Solomon said.
“It’s the next big exciting thing – working on the house,” she said.
A donation to the National Opera can be made at nationaloperahouse.org/donate.
Tanisha Thomas is the editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Tanisha at 412-480-7306, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .