Opry Houses: yesterday and today, here and there | Opera

It’s one of the most enduring images of the Old West, partly because there were so many of them, and partly because it captured the aspirations of their builders, performers, and audiences.

The boom in 19th century opera construction and the touring companies that used them was made possible by the flow of silver from the gold and silver mines of the West. And the advent of railways, which made cities far from the coast accessible, also contributed to its growth. (Although not many people called their operas “opry,” it was part of the vernacular of the time.)

The result has been a democratization of art forms and audiences. Operas, plays, oratories, medicine shows, band concerts, magicians, whistling soloists and lectures illustrated with magic lantern slides were all seen as valid forms of entertainment and attracted customers that spanned the economic spectrum.

Most touring opera companies fell into one of two camps: the Italian and American-Italian troupes, who performed everything in Italian regardless of their background, and the English-speaking troupes who sang in English. The latter were often more popular than their more exotic competitors, and soprano impresarias led many successful groups, such as the Emma Juch Opera Company, the Alice Oates Opera Company and especially the Emma Abbott Grand English Opera Company.

A look at the Abbott Company’s recipe for success provides excellent insight into the

operating at the time. Affordable ticket prices were an important part of the strategy. “I’d rather sing to a full house at $ 1.50 a ticket than the same half-filled house at $ 3.00 a ticket,” Abbott told the Chicago Inter Ocean in 1880 ($ 3.00 was a typical price charged by Italian companies). Her own reputation and skills as a singer were also part of the mix, as was a style that combined lavish costumes on stage with her straightforward Midwestern personality offstage.

The operas themselves were not only translated into English, but also adapted, often with substantial cuts and rearrangements to suit the strengths of the company. Interpolations were another of its characteristics, as in fact for singers all over the world. Early in his career, Abbott sang the title role in Bellini’s The Sonnambula In Milan. She added the hymn “Closer to You, My God” to one of the scenes and quickly learned a lesson when the audience hissed at her. It’s not that they objected to an interpolation, the official explained, it’s that they didn’t know about it. She never made the same mistake again, sticking to the additions requested by members of the public.

Abbott’s popularity earned him great honor: his company pledged to open 25 new opera houses during his 12-year tenure, including the opulent Tabor Grand Opera House in downtown Denver. Sadly, the 1,550-seat house was demolished in 1964, but its smaller sister theater, the Tabor Opera House, is still in Leadville, Colorado. (See the accompanying story for more information.)

Small-town audiences may not have seen so many full-fledged opera productions, but they have heard a lot of opera music, recitals by touring professional singers, and transcriptions for military orchestras and circus, solo piano and many other instruments. To cite a local example, on October 24, 1880, Santa Feans was able to attend a concert of the Ninth Cavalry Band which was half-operatic, including selections by Donizetti. Lucrezia Borgia, By Robert Planquette The bells of Corneville (a new Parisian hit at the time), and Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” He trovatore, complete with anvils. (These were probably much easier to acquire then than today.)

With its small population, New Mexico was not at the top of the list of tourist attractions. Nevertheless, by 1908 there were no less than 15 opera houses and theaters in the state. A wise manager might consult Henry’s Official Western Theater Guide for surprisingly comprehensive information on each of them, very useful for planning a travel itinerary and planning promotional campaigns. The guide included the seating capacity of each theater, the stage size and the dimensions of the proscenium opening and the director’s name, as well as the names of local newspapers and hotels, paths to iron serving the city and the number and size of posters that can be displayed. on the site.

In 1908, the state’s largest theater, the 1,752-seat Coliseum, was located in Raton, then New Mexico’s third largest city, with 8,000 residents. The largest municipality was Las Vegas and East Las Vegas, with a total population of 21,000. Las Vegas boasted the Duncan Opera House, with a capacity of 800, while East Las Vegas was home to the slightly smaller Duncan Theater. Soldiers from neighboring Fort Union performed quite often in theaters in Las Vegas, while the garrison had a drama club and comedy company in addition to the 23rd Infantry Band.

Fort Union was created in 1851 to move the regiment’s headquarters away from Santa Fe, “that well of vice and extravagance,” according to its commander. Whatever our vices and extravagances at the time, theater and opera were not among them. The first reference to a local opera does not appear in The New Mexican until 1872. It was the Motley Opera House on Galisteo Street, run by Harry Motley, a “famous person” who also operated a lounge and restaurant.

His shortcomings were well known. In 1881, The New Mexican reported that a local businessman, William Berger, spoke with the architect of the opera house in Colorado Springs, Colo. about the possibility of building a new one here and expressed optimistically that “Santa Fe will support a good opera ”.

Twenty years later, no progress had been made. To 1901 New mexican The story quoted a letter from the opera’s reservations manager that said, “Unless you can manage to get a new house in Santa Fe by next season, I should advise you not to try. set up other companies there. When we put them in an “old shack” like you have now, it does you and the city more harm than good.

In 1905, the local Elks Lodge was raising funds for an “opera fund” by organizing plays and variety shows. On February 13 of that year, news showed the continued and widespread appeal of opera and opera singers.

“Several parties have formed to attend Nellie Melba’s concert in Albuquerque on Friday night. [Melba was one of the world’s most famous sopranos at the time.] The legislature will adjourn Thursday to allow members and staff to attend the concert, which will be performed at the Elks Opera House in Duke City.

The Santa Fe Elks campaign finally found success in 1909, with their Elks Opera House at 117 Lincoln Avenue. (It was designed in a neoclassical style by Rapp and Rapp Architects of Trinidad, Colorado, who then helped launch the Neo-Spanish-Pueblo style in 1917 with their New Mexico Art Museum.) ‘The Elks’ Opera House opened, the growing popularity (and falling costs) of films meant that small town theaters focused on cinema, with touring opera and theater companies focusing on large ones. cities.

The Elks Opera House had a short lifespan. It was leased to professional operators in 1914, who renamed it Kays Theater. In 1921 Nathan Salman of Lensic Theater fame acquired it, operating it as a cinema until 1926. For a few years it hosted community theater productions, as well as boxing and wrestling matches. The building was demolished in 1939; the Domenici building of the New Mexico History Museum was erected on its site in 2009. ◀


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