In a majestic former church, a dance festival alights

When Dave Hurlbert and his partner, Scott King, purchased the long-neglected and cavernous church building on St. Ferdinand Street in July 2011, he had an admittedly limited vision for the space.

“I wanted a big desk and I wanted my piano, and I wanted to ride my bike around naked and sing real loud,” Hurlbert said.

The San Francisco transplant has close ties to the Gulf region: His mother grew up in Mobile and his father attended Tulane University, so he spent a good deal of his youth visiting New Orleans.

He was living here when King decided to invest in New Orleans real estate.

Hurlbert fell in love with the majestic and light-filled church that had once been a thriving Catholic parish for Marigny residents. Holy Trinity Church, designed by architect Theodore Giraud, was built in 1853 and maintains every bit of its aged glory.

Hurlbert’s job was to manage the restoration of the decommissioned church, which is now designated as a historic landmark. Immediately after the purchase, the New Orleans Fringe Festival approached him about renting the space for one of its performance venues that November.

“When I saw the audiences in that building, heard the laughter and applause, I thought, ‘This is what this building is meant for,’ ” he said.

Hurlbert began hosting live acoustic music performances and his vision for the space quickly grew into a performance venue and community center.

He and King established the Marigny Opera House Foundation as a nonprofit, nondenominational church of the arts, with the mission to support local performing artists and “restore the church to the neighborhood and to the city of New Orleans as a spiritual and artistic resource.”

The Marigny Opera House, which supplies the community with a much-needed affordable venue, is now booked through May 2014 with live theater, classical music concerts and dance performances; an opera festival is scheduled for June 2014.

The fall season opened this past weekend with a Baroque recital featuring Italian soprano Mattea Musso and lutist Stuart LeBlanc. The acoustics are what the composers hoped for, Hurlbert believes. “If you want to hear Baroque music in the situation for which it was written, you come to the Marigny Opera House,” he said.

This weekend, the second annual New Dance Festival features two separate programs of new work by six local choreographers commissioned by the Opera House. The festival also required that the choreographers select live acoustic music to accompany their 15- to 20-minute modern dance pieces, highlighting the music almost as much as the dancers’ movements.

“There’s not one other place or entity (in New Orleans) that offers a stipend for performers or choreographers to come in and create commissioned work. So what Dave is doing is really huge,” said Kettye Voltz, artistic director of Tsunami Dance Company and one of the choreographers showcased in the festival.

Voltz will present an excerpt of “Holding Chaos,” Tsunami’s 10th-anniversary performance, featuring music by Eric Laws.

Program one on Thursday and Friday features choreographers Donna Crump, with music by Big Chief Brian Nelson of Guardians of the Flame; Chard Gonzalez, featuring German art songs performed by Phyllis Treigle and Anne Sumich; and Voltz.

Program two, Saturday and Sunday, features choreographers Diogo de Lima, with music by John Boutte; Monica Ordonez, with music by Sarah Quintana and John Fohl; and Maya Taylor, with music by Dr. Maxim Samarov.

Upcoming fall events include a soiree in partnership with the New Orleans Opera Association on Oct. 5; “Taken,” a multidisciplinary performance presented by Crescent City Choreographers Oct. 18-20; a concert by Fleur de Lys Chamber Orchestra on Nov. 2; the New Orleans Fringe Festival Nov. 20-24; Press Street’s 24-Hour Draw-A-Thon on Nov. 30; and an innovative staging of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610” Dec. 12-14.

In addition to being a performance space, the Marigny Opera House offers artist residencies, supports mainstay groups such as the 9th Ward Opera Company and allows Opera House performers free rehearsal space.

The artistic programming at the Marigny Opera House reflects only one aspect of how the foundation has been a good neighbor and community partner.

Recently, the building has been host to One Book One New Orleans’ kick-off event, fundraisers for the Plessy School and Lazarus House, NOCCA photography students and a regular meeting place for a 12-step program and various religious services.

The box office rarely covers overhead or pays performers, so the Friends of the Marigny Opera House foundation is essential to the venue’s operations.

“Donors are hugely important for a nonprofit, especially one that promotes classical music and modern dance. Donors make it possible,” said Hurlbert.

The Opera House receives additional funding through a limited number of private weddings and film shoots, but in order to focus on its mission, the foundation wants to attract more donors.

“We want to build the Marigny Opera House community,” said Hurlbert.

Marigny Opera House New Dance Festival

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, Sept. 26-27 (first program); 8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 28-29 (second program)

TICKETS: $20 general admission; $10 students/seniors. Available at the door or online.

WHERE: Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand St.

INFO: (504) 948-9998;