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Charles Melville Hays observes the City of Melville’s mayoral office from his picture with extraordinary gravity—and what appears to be a hint of dissatisfaction. Hays was the general manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1912 when he drowned in the Titanic disaster. He was, at the time, engaged in an international business struggle to complete the second transcontinental line across Canada. Not only did he organize the building of rail lines, he aggrandized them with luxurious hotels and contributed to importing high culture to the frontier wherever rail advanced. Above his picture, separated only by the beams of the ceiling, is the Melville Opera House. It’s the kind of thing he would have appreciated. By 1908, Melville had chosen the town as the main rail centre between Winnipeg and Prince Rupert. He had already opened the Queen Street Rink and the train station.
The city hall was also part of his dream for the community, though he would never see the building. It was completed in 1913 and opened on November 5 of that year. It cost a total of $75,000.
Undoubtedly, Hays would certainly be dismayed to know that opera has fallen off of late. Things have changed in a century. Some— those with cultural tastes like Hays’,—would say at great loss.
Cary Piller ascends the two flights of stairs to escort her guest to the opera house. It’s not an easy task for her but there is little that will prevent the building’s biggest advocate from making the climb. The stairwell is wide and features liberal amounts of finely crafted wood. The relative grandeur predicts well for the second floor opera hall. And the visitor is not disappointed.
It is a little disorienting to step into the opera hall from the foyer. It is expansive and light pours in from tall arched windows. Piller clearly enjoys the space. “On the sides,” she says, pointing to the left and right sides of the stage, “are jury boxes. This was used as a court room when it wasn’t being used for performances.” A new courthouse was built in 1969.
In the era prior to WWII, musical events were a regular thing. Rural and town folk made their way to Melville for orchestral, choral, and operatic evenings to soak up the culture and connect with neighbours.
Piller, and a handful of others who lobby to preserve the hall, have ensured that work is done to keep it functional and looking as close to its original regal state as is affordable. In 2011, the elegant windows were refurbished using 85 percent of the original wood and glass. Since 2001, the building has been a Saskatchewan Heritage Site.
For Piller, it has been a long, long road keeping the value of the century-old building, and in particular the opera hall, at the forefront of city council.
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