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Cultural Arts

History of New Orleans Opera
America's First City of Opera

New Orleans Opera
Title Page of Sylvain
Old French Opera House
Old French Opera House

On May 22, 1796, while George Washington was still president and New Orleans was still under Spanish rule, the first documented opera performance was staged here. Since that performance of Ernest Grétry's Sylvain, operas have been staged almost continuously in New Orleans for the past two centuries.

Today that hallowed tradition is carried on by the New Orleans Opera Association, founded in 1943, and one of the oldest opera companies in America. Over the company's long existence, some of the greatest voices of all time have been appeared onstage here.

In the 1800s, New Orleans reigned as "The Opera Capital of North America," especially after the opening of the French Opera House in 1859. Numerous operas by the great European master composers – including Verdi, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Bellini, and others – had their American premieres at the French Opera House or at one of the numerous other theatres around town. Adelina Patti, "The Spanish Songbird," considered by many as one of the greatest sopranos of all time, flourished in New Orleans in the mid to late 1800s.

The French Opera House, at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets, burned to the ground in 1919 and the art form took a long absence from the city, visited occasionally by touring opera troupes. However, opera returned in grand style in 1943 with the founding of the present-day New Orleans Opera Association.

Today, visitors to New Orleans and local opera aficionados alike can still experience the grandeur of this bygone era at the very location where the Old French Opera House once existed on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Streets now occupied by The Four Points by Sheraton. The hotel's Puccini Bar pays homage to the Old French Opera House both in its opulent décor and opera entertainment. The Four Points by Sheraton has teamed up with local vocal trio Bon Operatit! and members of the New Orleans Opera Association to provide a variety of FREE Opera themed events throughout the year.

Today's Opera Association is breaking new ground with first-ever local performances of modern English-language operas by American composers. Along with the standard repertoire of French, Italian and German classics, the New Orleans Opera Association's success in combining the old and the new is measured in a long, continuous string of sold-out performances.

Placido Domingo, Mario Lanza, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Ezio Pinza, Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren and Jerome Hines are just a few of the top-tier tenors and bass/baritones to sing opera in New Orleans. The sopranos and mezzo-sopranos (altos) who have performed here are headlined by Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Dorothy Kirsten, Roberta Peters, Risë Stevens and Montserrat Caballé. Carol Neblett's brief nude scene in a 1973 staging of Massenet's Thais made international headlines.

Local singers who launched stellar opera careers here include the late Norman Treigle, star of New York City Opera in the 1960s and '70s, and Charles Anthony and Anthony Laciura, both of whom enjoyed long careers with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Click here for more on current opera performances and events around the city.

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