Opera fans, bundled in heavy jackets, scarves and knit caps, stepped gingerly on the slushy sidewalks as they headed indoors to the Fairmount Water Works — hoping to hop into the swimming pool and keep dry.
The former John B. Kelly Pool, empty and abandoned, served as the performance space for last weekend’s Tributaries: A Modern Cantata. The one-off production was part of the Fairmount Water Works’ new “Culture and Conversation” program, which aims to call attention to the historic landmark and raise its profile in the Philly landscape.
“It engages people with the space who wouldn’t come here otherwise,” said Victoria Prizzia, head of an installation and design firm that has been involved with the Water Works Interpretive Center.
The visit to the old pool house, along the banks of the Schuylkill and behind the Museum of Art, began with a wine-and-cheese reception in the adjacent Mill House. The mix-and-mingle doubled as an opportunity to educate visitors about water and water management, and outlined the Water Works’ own research and work. Kiosks lining the walls detailed the relationship between Philadelphia’s sewers and man-made streams, tidal estuaries and the organization’s history.
In 1815, the Fairmount Water Works opened as “the nation’s first major urban water-supply system,” but was decommissioned in 1909. In 1911, the space reopened as the Philadelphia Aquarium. In 1962, it was reinvented as the John B. Kelly Pool, a practice pool for high school students.
After Hurricane Agnes severely damaged the building in June 1972, the Junior League of Philadelphia raised money to revive it and keep it open as a historical landmark.
“It’s clearly a space that needs to be for the public,” said Fairmount Water Works director Karen Young.
With about 125 people attending and most paying $30 admission, the cantata was not a big money-maker.The purpose of the event was to explore what the Water Works could do with the pool-house space and reach out to the community.
“It raises more friends than funds,” Young said.
The pool is separated into three empty pits, split by two walls that once were used to create lap lanes. Two of the pool’s pits were filled with white chairs for the audience. The third pit, by arch-shaped windows overlooking the river, was reserved for the orchestra. Greek columns split the pits into sections, which set the scene well for both the pool and a night at the opera.
With temperatures in the 30s, concrete walls and no heat, the audience stayed wrapped up against the cold, but clapped warmly for the four-part cantata.
Philly’s Will and Brooke Blair joined Craig Hendrix of the Agave Opera in putting the performance pieces together. The songs all dealt with water and man’s interaction with it.
Afterward, audience members went back to the Mill House and its displays.
“Hold on!” a woman said to her husband. “I just wanted to get another look.”
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