The Inn on Bourbon, on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Streets, rests on the site of the Old French Opera House, for 60 years, the cultural center of New Orleans Creole society, and the first opera house in the United States. Erected in 1859 at a cost of 118,000 dollars, it was opened to the public on December 1, 1859.
The opera house was one of the most famous masterpieces designed by noted architect James Gallier, architect of Gallier Hall and many other classic 18th century buildings. The great elliptical auditorium was beautifully arranged with a color scheme of red and white, and seated 1,800 persons in four tiers of seats. It was Greek revival in design, and its colonnaded front measured 166 feet on Bourbon Street and 187 feet on Toulouse Street. Its 80-foot high loft towered above all of the buildings of the French Quarter. In the loges of the opera house, there were screened boxes for pregnant ladies, ladies in mourning, and "ladies-of-the-evening" (elegantly dressed madams from nearby Storyville).
On December 1, 1859 a gala performance of Rossini's Guillaume Tell inaugurated the new theatre which thereafter would be celebrated as the French Opera House. During the following season, 1860/61, great excitement was generated by frequent appearances there of the gifted young soprano Adelina Patti, who, aged seventeen, and prior to her debut on the international scene, appeared first in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and then, during the remainder of the season, was heard in various other roles, including Leonora in Il Trovatore, Rosina in Barbiere, Lady Harriet in Martha, Gilda in Rigoletto, Valentine in Les Huguenots, and Dinorah in the first United States staging of Meyerbeer's Le Pardon du Plo'rmel.
French Opera Programs"La Juive" Halevy, 11/10/1888, "Les Huguenots"
In the early hours of the morning of Thursday, 4th December 1919, the French Opera House burned to the grounds to the shock and horror of the people of New Orleans. The emotional account of the fire in The Times-Picayune echoed the sentiments of everyone in the city:
"And into the hearts of the people of New Orleans there has come a great sorrow, a great mourning. For there are few women here who have not tender memories of their vanished youth, their debutante days, loves, heartburnings, joy - all intimately linked with the French Opera House. There are few men who have loved or been loved, who have not recollections of the nights when they sat in the dreamy darkness of the old building, listening to the voices of the great singers blending with the orchestra, and thrilling at the touch of a bit of gauze as it brushed their cheeks.
"Children, taken to the opera with their mothers, learned their first lessons in art and music, while watching the singers upon the brilliantly lighted stage. . . .
"Gone, all gone. The curtain has fallen for the last time upon Les Huguenots, long a favorite with the New Orleans public. The opera house has gone in a blaze of horror and of glory. There is a pall over the city; eyes are filled with tears and hearts are heavy. Old memories, tucked away in the dusty cobwebs of forgotten years, have come out like ghosts to dance in the ghastly Walpurgis ballet of flame.
"The heart of the old French Quarter has stopped beating." (quoted in Lyle Saxon. Fabulous New Orleans, Robert L. Crager & Company, New Orleans, 1928 at pp 280-281)
From 1859 until it burned in 1919, the French Opera House was not only the scene of hundreds of operas, but was the hub of the dwindling Creole society, the last refuge of the "creme-de-la-creme."
THE OLD FRENCH OPERA HOUSE
IT was on Orleans Street, near Royal—I don't have to "shut my eyes and think very hard," as the Marchioness said to Dick Swiveller, to see the old Opera House and all the dear people in it, and hear its entrancing music. We had "Norma" and "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "Robert le Diable" and "La Dame Blanche," "Huguenots," "Le Prophete," just those dear old melodious operas, the music so thrillingly catchy that half the young men hummed or whistled snatches of it on their way home.
There were no single seats for ladies, only four-seated boxes. The pit, to all appearances, was for elderly, bald gentlemen only, for the beaux, the fashionable eligibles, wandered around in the intermissions or "stood at attention" in the narrow lobbies behind the boxes during the performances. Except the two stage boxes, which were more ample, and also afforded sly glimpses towards the wings and flies, all were planned for four occupants. Also, all were subscribed for by the season. There was also a row of latticed boxes in the rear of the dress circle, usually occupied by persons in mourning, or the dear old messieurs et mesdames, who were not chaperoning a mademoiselle. One stage box belonged, by right of long-continued possession, to Mr. and Mrs. Cuthbert Bullitt. The opposite box was la loge des lions, and no less than a dozen lions wandered in and out of it during an evening. Some were blasé and looked dreadfully bored, a few were young and frisky, but every mortal one of them possessed a pompous and self-important mien.
If weather permitted (we had to consider the weather, as everybody walked) and the opera a favorite, every seat would be occupied at 8 o'clock, and everybody quiet to enjoy the very first notes of the overture. All the fashionable young folks, even if they could not play or whistle "Yankee Doodle," felt the opera was absolutely necessary to their social success and happiness. The box was only five dollars a night, and pater-familias certainly could afford that!
Think of five dollars for four seats at the most fashionable Opera House in the land then, and compare it with five dollars for one seat in the topmost gallery of the most fashionable house in the land to-day. Can one wonder we old people who sit by our fire and pay the bills wag our heads and talk of the degenerate times?
Toilets in our day were simple, too. French muslins trimmed with real lace, pink and blue barèges with ribbons. Who sees a barège now? No need of jeweled stomachers, ropes of priceless pearls or diamond tiaras to embellish those Creole ladies, many of whom were direct descendants of French nobles; not a few could claim a drop of even royal blood.
Who were the beaux? And where are they now? If any are living they are too old to hobble into the pit and sit beside the old, bald men.SOCIAL LIFE IN OLD NEW ORLEANS -Being Recollections of my Girlhood
BY ELIZA RIPLEY
COPYRIGHT, 1912 MCMXII -BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY, NEW YORK AND LONDON