Saturday 24 March 2018

All that jazz . . . but opera is woven into the Bayou tapestry

Mention New Orleans and first thoughts turn to jazz, that fusion of ragtime, gospel and blues that was born in the city way down south in Louisiana.

But this date marks a musical anniversary that has its own significance, for it was on December 1, 1859, that a gala performance of Rossini's William Tell celebrated the inauguration of the city's brand new opera house.

That opera had such a prominent place in the musical hierarchy of New Orleans is hardly surprising. It had been founded by the French Mississippi Company, which guaranteed a strong French influence even beyond Spanish colonisation and the Louisiana Purchase, which made the area part of the United States of America.

Opera has been staged in New Orleans for well over 200 years. The first record, which dates from 1796, notes the performance of a one-act comic opera – Sylvain – by a prominent composer of the time, André Grétry, highly enough regarded to have the nickname "the French Mozart".

The popularity of opera in New Orleans is borne out by the fact there were two impresarios competing for audiences. The original Théâtre d'Orléans opened in 1815 and a second opera house followed nine years later.

But it was the Théâtre d'Orléans that promoted a regular season of opera, from autumn through to spring. When the hot, humid summer arrived and those who could afford to left the city for the countryside or the coast, the opera company went off as well, touring to Philadelphia and New York, giving shows that had thrilled audiences in the south.

Rossini was a particular favourite. La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was just one of several of his operas to get their American premieres in the Théâtre d'Orléans.

Europe's top musical dramas would find their way to Louisiana: Verdi's La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Rigoletto; Bellini's La Sonnambula; Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.

It was a dispute over the rent at the Théâtre d'Orléans that led to the construction of the new opera house. They worked day and night to finish it in just six months, an imposing structure on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse Streets, with a colonnade at the front and an 80-foot tower. Inside, there were seats for 1,800.

The famous Italian soprano Adelina Patti, still a teenager at the time, was one of the first to make her name on the stage there, before the Civil War intervened.

It would be another 10 years before the French Opera House flourished again, but when it did, it dominated the New Orleans social scene, until it was destroyed in a fire in 1919.

These days, New Orleans still describes itself as America's first city of opera, with Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns and Puccini's Madame Butterfly due on in the spring.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

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