Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Community Opera Houses

"In the early 18th century, Venice, a city of some 160,000 inhabitants, boasted seven full-time opera houses." (TheGuardian: "Venice - The City that Created Opera")

Can you imagine living in a city that had SEVEN opera houses?
The mere existence would indicate a city that was culturally advanced.
For me, it would indicate evidence of a utopian society.
Sadly, it is a dream. 
A probable, impossible dream.

There was once a time in the US that most small towns had an opera house.

Yes, 'tis true!

These opera houses were where traveling performers would stage shows. It was usually the largest building in town. There would be a stage upon which the performers would stand so that all may see them. Seating would be benches and/or chairs that could be set in front of the stage for performances or moved to the perimeter for special events such as dances.

From 1720 onward in the US the opera houses would be the venues where touring musicians performed.  The traveling performers might be independent singers (Jenny Lind comes to mind) or groups of performers (such as the Virginia Minstrels or the Christy Minstrels).

As more people started learning to play the piano and sing published songs, as opposed to folk songs, music publishers would send troupes of performers to these small local opera houses to perform new music. During the intermission and after the performances sheet music would be sold of the selections performed in the show. This is much like touring artists today sell their CDs and other merchandise at concerts.

As time progressed and technology advances moved into these small towns the local opera houses became movie theaters. Live music in the form of piano or organ accompaniment to the movie would transition to "canned" or recorded music.

Sadly, many of these opera houses have been torn down to make way for progress.

Some, though, still exist though not as opera houses.

In the small town where I lived in the Midwest (population 2200) the opera house still stands. 
However I believe it now houses the local fire department's trucks. 
It is, after all, the largest building in town.

So, as you drive through the small towns of the US, look closely at the old buildings in the town.
Look for the largest building and look up high on the front facade or the side of the building.
You may see remnants of an old sign that says, "Opera House."

And you may wonder about the music that once echoed through its halls.
If only we could hear it...


  1. http://www.willacather.org/opera-house/about-history
    Sarah--I enjoyed your observations here! I am sharing the link to the Red Cloud, Nebraska Opera House page on the Willa Cather Foundation web site. They have restored the building and have all sorts of events there. Notice her quote at the top of the page.

    1. Thank you for sharing! I will certainly check out the site.