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Why Boston is ‘not an opera town’

A century-old collapse reveals volumes about the city’s arts culture

The Boston Opera House being demolished in 1958

Globe file photo

The original Boston Opera House being demolished in 1958.

When Opera Boston announced just before Christmas that it was ceasing operations, the city’s supply of fully staged opera was rather abruptly slashed. Opera Boston had, in its eight-year run, fed the city’s appetite for novelty and rarity, putting on operas both new and old that had infrequently, if ever, been seen or heard here.

The company’s dissolution had its own specific pathology, of course: slow fund-raising in a down economy, maybe, or a fractured board. But in the wake of its unexpected collapse, one familiar theme emerged: Speaking of Boston, the company’s former general director, Carole Charnow, said: “I think it’s not an opera town.”

Globe file photo

An exterior view of the original Boston Opera House on Huntinton Ave.

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This knock on Boston--“not an opera town”--has a history that goes back at least a century. Of course there’s opera in Boston--there’s too much musical energy and talent passing through the city for there not to be. Boston Lyric Opera still perseveres; the Boston Early Music Festival has embraced fully staged opera in recent years; conservatories, colleges, and a small community of chamber-opera collectives mount productions. But the grandest of opera--the sort of repertory-based, civic-institution grand opera companies found in so many American cities, New York’s Metropolitan, Chicago’s Lyric, Houston’s Grand--has never taken hold here. That absence is the root of Boston’s “not an opera town” reputation, a reputation that goes back to another operatic scheme that burned bright and then abruptly burned out: the Boston Opera Company.

The Boston Opera Company, founded in 1908, was the city’s original attempt to host opera on the highest and grandest level. Launched by a wealthy civic booster, it brought touring stars to magnificent productions in a new, purpose-built Opera House not far from Symphony Hall. But for all its ambition, it lasted only six seasons. Officially, what ended its run was World War I, a cataclysmic disruption to an enterprise dependent on overseas talent. But the war, adjudged Boston Globe critic Penfield Roberts, “accelerated a collapse which had, perhaps, been inevitable.”

What made it so inevitable? Beyond finances, the Boston Opera Company fell victim to something more subtle. The story of its collapse--and the larger failure of Boston ever to become an “opera town”--offers a window into a set of attitudes and divisions peculiar to the city.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Boston’s prominence in the arts was anchored in the sobriety of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The MFA was soon to move into its palatial new home on Huntington Avenue; the BSO, widely regarded as America’s finest orchestra, had moved into its own palace, Symphony Hall, in 1900.

Opera was, seemingly, the logical next step. Touring opera companies had criss-crossed the country for some time, but the Metropolitan Opera in New York City set the new example: a permanent company, yoking opera’s spectacle and sublimity, the combination of musical repute and populist theatricality, to the steady advance of American wealth and civic pride.

The Boston Opera Company was the brainchild of Henry Russell, a British opera impresario, and Eben Jordan, the philanthropic scion of the Jordan Marsh retail fortune. Jordan funded the company and also its new home: the austere, imposing Opera House on Huntington Avenue, not far from Symphony Hall and the MFA.

The Boston Opera Company’s productions were, at their best, scintillating. The first, in 1909, was a production of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” featuring two of the era’s most notable singers, Lillian Nordica and Louise Homer. The legendary Mary Garden, the most formidable singing actress prior to Maria Callas, was a frequent headliner. The great Italian coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini came to Boston, as did her rival, the demanding Australian Nellie Melba (who was persuaded to set aside her feud with Russell, her onetime coach). The Irish tenor John McCormack sang for the company.

But Jordan’s pockets were more finite than the city expected. The standard for Boston arts philanthropy was Henry Lee Higginson, the founder and single-minded sponsor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Jordan (who had already built Jordan Hall and Plymouth’s Jordan Hospital) aimed to be less paternal, more catalytic. Higginson personally made up the BSO’s yearly deficits for nearly four decades; Jordan wasn’t nearly as patient. As the seasons progressed, and Jordan stopped balancing the company’s bottom line, no one else stepped into the breach. Higginson bought stock in the company, but his fortune was earmarked for the BSO. Higginson himself encouraged Isabella Stewart Gardner, another artistically minded fount of wealth, to support the opera, lest it prove, as he wrote her, “an experiment, which will not be repeated in a hurry.” But Gardner’s philanthropic capacity was filled by her eponymous art museum.

The public, perhaps, was habituated to thinking in terms of benefactors, not organizations--Higginson’s orchestra, Gardner’s museum, Jordan’s opera. Russell recalled seeing Bostonians, confronted with the city’s reluctant support, “shrug their shoulders and laughingly say: ‘It is Jordan’s baby.’” When the company declared bankruptcy in 1915, Jordan was the largest creditor.

The lack of support from old-money Boston offered a telling comment on the city. Culturally, opera was an odd fit for New England society. The art form itself--emotionally vivid, sensational, even (as with the new Italian imports) lurid--seemed designed to ruffle Boston society’s well-aged propriety.

The Boston Opera Company tried to navigate this by espousing high-minded ideals, emphasizing artistic quality more than the populist charms of celebrity, spectacle, and scandal. (Only Boston would build an opera house praised for, of all things, simplicity and restraint--“the first Unitarian opera house,” as one composer dubbed it.) Nevertheless, preferring the comparative austerity of the symphony, high-minded Brahmins drifted away from the opera.

Globe file photo

Eben Jordan Jr.

At the same time, the company, for all its notable headliners, failed to muster that star quotient with enough consistency to spark the excitement of the general public, which, in the opinion of The New Music Review, would have preferred “famous singers and the show in the boxes” to “mediocre singers and the absence of ‘society.’”

The opera also came under a particularly Bostonian kind of political attack. The city’s reputation as blue-nosed and ban-happy, often attributed vaguely to its “Puritan roots,” grew out of a convenient alliance between a handful of watchdog Brahmins and the newly ascendant Irish politicians who found that a morality-driven politics dovetailed with the expectations of their Catholic constituency. Opera’s verismo charms, predictably, became a target. Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the grandfather of President Kennedy, was one of the very few non-Brahmin shareholders in the Boston Opera Company--but nevertheless chastised the young company for the enthusiasm with which Mary Garden and baritone Vanni Marcoux threw themselves into the luridness of “Tosca.” Fitzgerald’s successor, James Curley, was even more zealous. Possibly apocryphal Curley family lore had the mayor personally ringing down the curtain on Garden’s diaphanously gowned Thaïs.

Boston did have one group of immigrants who might have provided a natural constituency for a world-class opera company: Italians. In New York, the Social Register families in the boxes (tellingly, more new money than old) and the immigrants in the stalls found enough common ground to make Enrico Caruso a star, and the Met an institution. In Boston, Italian immigrants were coming to the city in droves, and would seemingly have provided a ready audience for opera here as well. But attempts to revive or re-create the Boston Opera Company never matched even the original’s brief run.

Why not? One possibility: Relations between the city’s old-money elite and immigrants were wary and suspicious. Yankee Boston had developed a strong anti-immigrant streak--Robert Treat Paine Jr. and Henry Parkman, Opera Company stockholders both, had also helped found the Immigration Restriction League--and regarded the Italians with particular trepidation. Already by 1896, the Globe could note that “The Italians and Portuguese seem to have aroused the ire of the Immigration Restriction League more than any other nationality.” Curley, in particular, would exploit that ire, widening the gap between immigrants and Brahmins. It might be impossible to draw a direct connection between the city’s attitudes and the perpetual transience of possible successors to the Boston Opera Company, but if Boston opera needed what the Met had--an environment where Brahmins and immigrants could come together in the interests of civic improvement--that may have simply been a bridge too far.

The Opera House that Jordan built was knocked down in 1958, leaving, as Globe critic Jeremy Eichler has put it, “a striking void in the cultural life of a city so rich in other dimensions.” Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, founded the same year, found its grand-opera ambitions continually thwarted by the lack of a permanent venue; the group’s 1978 acquisition of the B. F. Keith Memorial Theater (now the new Boston Opera House) proved the straw that broke the company’s financial back. Opera shifted to more modest companies on the model of Boston Lyric Opera: four or five productions a year, perhaps, in rented halls. (By comparison, the original Boston Opera Company had planned 24 operas for its final, canceled season.)

The 1991 disintegration of Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston and Opera Boston’s demise last month might be divergent failures--too much fiscal chutzpah in the former case, perhaps not enough of it in the latter--but both fit all too well the narrative established a century ago: Like the razing of the Opera House, the end of Opera Boston could be seen as both unexpected and oddly inevitable. The discord might be long past, but the repercussions still echo. This town, after all, does treasure its curses.

Matthew Guerrieri is a musician and writer who frequently covers classical music for the Globe.
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