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Alma College Wins $15,000 Michigan Humanities Grant

Funds will benefit interactive historical showcase, ‘Three Nights at the Opera’

In this 1953 photo, the Alma Marching Band is pictured performing in front of the restored Wright...In this 1953 photo, the Alma Marching Band is pictured performing in front of the restored Wright Leppien Opera House Block.ALMA — Sometime next year, the restored Wright Leppien Opera House in downtown Alma will be transformed to showcase the type of performances it was known for in its heyday, at the turn of the 20th century.

That’s thanks to a $15,000 grant awarded to Alma College by the nonprofit organization Michigan Humanities, the state’s affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities. The funds will go toward “Three Nights at the Opera: Historical Recreations of Performances at the Wright Leppien Opera House,” a project that aims to return the Opera House to its glory days as the center of culture and community in mid-Michigan.

“One of the big changes that has been happening at Alma College over the past decade has been this deep recognition that we’re not just a college in the city of Alma — we’re in this together with the city of Alma,” said Benjamin Peterson, visiting assistant professor of history and political science, who was involved in the grant-writing process. ” The Opera House is a physical representation of that commitment. We’re building there, we’re housing students there, we have businesses there.

“This grant offers us the opportunity to explore those relationships in an educational way, while having fun at the same time. It’s one thing to open a book or a website and read about what the Opera House used to mean to the city, but it’s another to see it and experience it for ourselves. We hope to bring that experience to the college, and the city as a whole.”

Peterson applied for the grant together with professors Scott Mackenzie from theatre and Will Nichols from music, with help from Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of Academic Grants Support Sheryle Dixon, last summer. “Three Nights at the Opera” is tentatively slated for fall 2021, but could change depending on restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it does happen, Peterson said participants will see a three-night tour of a lot of history. The first night will feature Alma College vocalists and other musicians performing popular works of the 1900s-10s. The second night will focus on theatre, with college actors showcasing dramatic scenes and readings of verse. The third night offers a selection of silent films, with live music accompaniment. Each performance will be preceded by a discussion of the role that the opera house played in the city’s history and conclude with an open discussion of the performance.

“It should be a really nice opportunity to not only bring the community into this wonderful space that has been rehabilitated, but also explore what people were doing here at the time this space was so popular in the first place,” Peterson said.

Peterson explained that the Opera House block, which was built from 1887-80, was once used for a number of events in the social life of the town, including dramatic performances, political speeches and musical performances. Peterson believes it likely declined in relevance following the popularization of silent film in the 1910s.

In 2010, the Opera House was gutted by a fire, but remained standing. Seven years later, ownership of the Opera House was transferred to Alma College, which undertook a massive redevelopment plan to restore the building to its historic features with apartments for students on the upper floors.

The restored Opera House block was dedicated in October 2019, its redevelopment funded entirely by community and college benefactors.

In a press release, Michigan Humanities expressed support for projects like “Three Nights at the Opera,” for their melding together of arts with community function.

“Our new round of Humanities Grantees are creating a diverse set of online and in-person projects to ensure the humanities remain vibrant in Michigan while we face these unprecedented times together,” said Shelly Kasprzycki, president/CEO of Michigan Humanities.

Michigan Humanities approved 13 grants totaling $171,925 in October. Alma College’s proposal was one of eight to receive the $15,000 maximum.

Story published on December 10, 2020