“The date of the very first staging of opera in the New Orleans cannot be firmly established and seems forever lost to music historians, but it can safely be stated that since 1796, in the final decade of the Spanish colonial era, New Orleans has had operatic performances on almost a yearly basis. With few exceptions throughout the nineteenth century, each year the city hosted a resident company which was engaged for its principal theatre and which could be depended upon for performances throughout an established operatic season…
Welcome though these sporadic appearances were, what the city needed was a return to a permanent company, with a fixed operatic season. Determined to meet this challenge, in February 1943 a group of music lovers, led by Walter L. Loubat (1885-1945), drew up a charter creating the New Orleans Opera House Association. An inaugural summer season of open air performances, billed as “Opera under the Stars”, in City Park stadium was planned. The inaugural bill of Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci (June 11/12, 1943) was followed by three other works. Amelio Colantoni served as artistic director; former Metropolitan Opera conductor Louis Hasselmans was recruited from nearby Louisiana State University’s faculty; and Lelia Haller, a New Orleanian who had danced with the Paris Opéra ballet, began the training of a resident corps de ballet. The initial season scored a success, but the ever present threat of evening showers in semi tropical New Orleans prompted a move indoors to the Municipal Auditorium that autumn. The concert hall of the Auditorium remained home for the Opera Association until the inauguration of the Theatre of Performing Arts in 1973.”
Jack Belsom, “A History of Opera in New Orleans.”
Here at Monroe Library’s Special Collections and Archives, we house a huge collection of programs, donated by the New Orleans Opera Association, dating back to that first performance “under the stars” in 1943. I have been lucky enough to have been allotted the task of digitizing this collection. Flipping through the beautifully vintage pages of these programs, one can recognize Loyola Alums credited as both chorus members and singing roles. Sarah Jane McMahon (’02), Norman Treigle (51’) and Bryan Hymel (’01) are just a few of the many recognizable names you can find. You can even find the names of superstars like Walter Cassel, Robert Weede, Eugene Conley, Lawrence Tibbett, Gabor Carelli and many more. Each program includes bios about the composers, conductors and singers involved in each performance, as well as a synopsis of the opera(s) being performed, and provides a neat insight to the life of those musicians. They also include some very hip ads from the time: a piano company that was based in New Orleans, local restaurants and eateries, clothing and jewelry stores, home radios, cars, theatres, etc…
Once the collection is digitized it will be made available and accessible through the SCA webpage. In the meantime, if you desire to hold one of these pieces of operatic history in your own hands, the same pieces of paper that were held by the hands of who-knows-who (perhaps a few of today’s New Orleans-hailing opera stars from their student days), then come by the Booth-Bricker Special Collections and Archives Reading Room on the third floor of Monroe Library to consult with one of our archivists. We will be happy to help!
This post was compiled by student worker Dylan J. Tran.
Found in the Archives is a recurring series of crazy cool stuff found in the Monroe Library’s Special Collections & Archives.