Edifice Complex?

by Suzanne Calvin

The glamorous French Opera House, New Orleans, after losing one of its many lives.


There’s a lot of discussion these days about the newest performing arts venues and whether that money could have been better spent somewhere else. But while reading David L. Groover and Cecil C. Conner, Jr.’s Skeletons from the Opera Closet, I was reminded that at the opposite end of the spectrum, there were worse things than bad acoustics to worry about in many of the old American opera houses. In New Orleans, for instance:

“…one of America’s first cultural centers after La Spectacle de la Rue St. Pierre was built in 1791. It was condemned as unsafe in 1804. The Theatre d’Orléans, home of such American premieres as L’elisir d’amore, La Juive, and Le Prophète, opened in 1809, burned down in 1813 and was rebuilt in 1816…the audience was amused by a loud cracking sound they thought part of the ingenious stage effects until they noticed the second and third galleries break away from the wall and slowly settle orchestra-ward.

“Thirty years later in 1885, when Adelina Patti sang Traviata in the rebuilt French Opera House, the audience was so unrestrained in their enthusiasm that their clamorous ovations caused the plaster ceiling to collapse. Not to be outdone, the re-rebuilt theater presented the American premiere of Gounod’s Reine de Saba in 1899. The opera’s third act features the sculptor Adoniram in his workshop, complete with roaring furnace and vats of molten metal. At the climax of the forging scene…the furnace exploded and engulfed the stage in flames. They never attempted Benvenuto Cellini.”

I should think not. Anyway, the next time you hear a complaint about overbuilt venues just remember this: We had a foot stomping, program shredding, eight minute standing O at the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick and EVERYONE lived to talk about it!

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media and PR

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