PORT Elizabeth's iconic Opera House is set for a R29-million facelift in January after two years of bickering and a courtroom battle involving a human heart.
Among the major changes, the foyer will be dramatically extended, The Barn venue enlarged, two lifts installed and a theatre school and restaurant introduced.
The provision of full wheelchair access, a much-needed upgrade of electrical infrastructure and a paint job are also included in the plans.
The green light comes two years after money became available. Objections to the plans put them on hold.
Opera House general manager Monde Ngonyama said he was thrilled the renovations could finally start.
"This is an old building with the electrical infrastructure outdated. If anything was to happen, the insurance company would never pay out. I am very happy that everything is coming together so we can now focus on other matters."
A Section 21 company, the Opera House – Africa's oldest functioning theatre – went through troubled times financially in the mid- to late 1990s when a lack of sufficient funding for maintenance and operating costs threatened the venue's future.
The revamp budget comes from a R21-million legacy grant issued by the Arts and Culture Department in 2011.
However, the project was halted after the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth and the DA opposed the restoration.
They were against the removal of a tree next to the Opera House where a theatre school is to be built.
The second phase of the refurbishing plans now includes a theatre school and restaurant but on the second floor, so the tree in question will not be removed.
An 1821 title deed also restricted structural work with regard to the adjacent Donkin Reserve, declaring that any structure – in this case, the Opera House – should never encroach upon the reserve.
This condition was imposed by Sir Rufane Donkin, acting governor of the Cape Colony from 1820 to 1821, who in August 1820 erected the pyramid memorial to his wife, Elizabeth – after whom Port Elizabeth was named – which exists on the reserve to this day.
Donkin used the deed to protect the embalmed heart of his wife which is buried on the reserve.
However, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality won a legal battle in 2011, declaring that the Donkin Reserve belonged to the municipality, which had jurisdiction over it.
An Opera House board member who wished to remain anonymous said the building would be eco-friendly.
"The revamp has been needed as we are not safety-compliant and do not cater for wheelchair-bound people.
"The Barn is also not financially viable because it is small. There are also no exits backstage and the building is in great need of being patched up. This revamp is important because it is going to be much easier for older citizens and wheelchair-bound people to come to the theatre.
"We also hope to put on bigger shows because right now we do not have the technical equipment," she said.
The 121-year-old national monument's Barn theatre will be enlarged to seat up to 200 people.
DA heritage spokeswoman, Bernice Wright, said she was happy when she saw the revised plan but could not comment further about the renovations as the drawings had not yet been approved.
The initial plan was to include extra rehearsal rooms, seminar rooms, a costume department and restaurant.
Since 2011, the Opera House has received an additional R8-million to cover escalating construction costs.
In June last year the Opera House submitted an application to the municipality to renovate the building. It was approved two weeks ago.
Ngonyama said it was a pity the delay had led to an escalation in costs. "This denied us a proper production house," he said.
Professor Albrecht Heroldt, director and architect at Matrix urban designers and architects, said they would be advertising fortenders and it was hoped a builder would be on site in the new year. The first phase would take about 14 months.
"There will be a new foyer and an elevator to The Barn and the storage room. That is the first phase. In the second phase we will work on the theatre school and the restaurant."
Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber president Mandla Madwara said: "The Opera House is an architectural feature of PE focusing on stage art and music, offering a platform for local talent in particular. It is exciting to see it preserved and renovated to make sure the young artists inherit this magnificent building."