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12 plans for Mayor Walsh’s new Boston

A new home for opera

Illustration by Doug Chayka for The Boston Globe

This decade marks a sad centennial in Boston’s cultural life. By 1900, Boston was so rich in such institutions as Harvard, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Public Library, The Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra that the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead could observe that “insofar as the world of learning possesses a capital city, Boston, with its neighboring institutions, approximates the role that Paris held in the Middle Ages.”

What was missing? The extravagant and spectacular artistry of grand opera and ballet. And while in subsequent years there has arisen a Boston Ballet Company of great distinction, there is still no opera company. Nor a proper opera house.

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Briefly, we had one. From 1908 to 1915 there was a Boston Opera Company of international stature, housed in a magnificent opera house on Huntington Avenue near Symphony Hall. When the financial crisis precipitated by the First World War hit, the much beloved, quarter-
century-old Symphony survived, but the young opera company did not. Then in 1958 the building itself—where Caruso had sung and Pavlova had danced—was torn down. The lack of a true home for grand opera was, Jeremy Eichler wrote in the Globe in 2009, Boston’s “Achilles’ heel.”

The long-term benefits of curing this ill could not be clearer. Never mind the spiritual uplift—the arts, even more than sports, bring both visitors and dollars to the city. We should tear down the buildings along Huntington Avenue opposite the Christian Science Center and build on the other side of that blocklong reflecting pool a spectacular performing arts center—a Sydney Opera House for Boston.

An international competition should be held to design the building, which could be home not only for a new Boston Opera Company but for the present Boston Ballet. A public-private partnership is needed to build, and private money would endow the companies. All that is lacking is leadership to galvanize the will of Bostonians.

Douglass Shand-Tucci is a cultural historian with a focus on American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. He is currently at work on a historical guide to the architecture of MIT.
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