Randolph Fuller, a local philanthropist devoted to opera, and Gil Rose, acclaimed conductor of Odyssey Opera, held a South End library audience spellbound last month with their take on Boston's history of opera. With glowing reviews for the first two performances of Odyssey Opera's fifth season under their belts, Fuller and Rose may not need to spend any more time dispelling the notion that Boston simply is not an opera town. "If I hear this complaint one more time...," a somewhat exasperated Rose said,"...Boston is an opera town. It's just not like the others."
Conductor Rose's decades-long relationship with his financial backer Fuller dates from the days of Opera Boston. When the opera company folded in 2012, Fuller and Rose (who is also the moving fore behind the award-winning Boston Modern Orchestra Project and an active international guest conductor) founded Odyssey Opera which, true to its name, is dedicated to presenting a voyage through an eclectic repertoire of well-known and lesser-known opera masterpieces, including contemporary new works and commissions. But without an actual opera house it is a struggle to find space for the performances, Rose acknowledged. This season, for example, the five operas of Trial by Fire, focused on the theme of Joan of Arc and The Hundred Years' War, are being staged in three locations, including NEC's Jordan Hall and the Huntington Avenue and Sanders theatres. The Boston Opera House, formerly located on Huntington Avenue, was torn down in 1958 to make way for the expansion by Northeastern University. "The lack of physical space dedicated for opera in Boston has a practical dimension that makes it difficult to produce opera," Rose explained. "It is related to how many tickets you can sell. By destroying the opera building, which had some 3,000 seats, a financial dynamic was erased. There is tons of opera, but you can’t have an opera company without an opera house and vice versa."
The popularity of opera in the 18th and 19th centuries inspired Boston's upper class, including Eban Jordan, Isabella Stewart Garner and others, to build the Boston Opera House in the early 20th century on Huntington Avenue. With a simple design on the outside and lavish features on the inside, it was immediately baptized by the Boston press as “the first Unitarian Opera.” After decades of popular usage, the Boston Opera was demolished in the late 1950s, ceding to Northeastern University's growing footprint. It was a few years short of the time when the newly established historic preservation movement in Boston would have stopped its destruction, maintains Fuller.
Fuller's passion for opera has been undiminished since his parents took him to Die Fledermaus, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, when he was nine, at the Boston Opera House. During his library talk, he displayed an encyclopedic knowledge about Boston opera history. He described how the first opera performance in Boston, Richard the Lionheart, by Andre Getry, took place in 1797, in a theatre designed by Charles Bullfinch, located at the corner of Franklin and Federal Streets. By the 1830s, opera was established as a popular form of entertainment and, even though opera was seen as an elite art form in Europe, the Americans saw it as a democratic institution that brought all kinds of people together under one roof, for everyone to enjoy. “It wasn’t so expensive,” Fuller explained, “about 40 cents a ticket for the working class man who'd make $18 a week. It crossed all barriers,” he added, with tickets for the best seats costing $12 to $15 to please what Fuller described as Boston's "codfish aristocracy."
Opera in Boston also reflected America's epic history of immigration in the 19th century, said Fuller, with first Italians, then Germans, then Eastern Europeans and Russians taking the stage as performers, or buying tickets as enthusiastic audiences. Around 1840, profitable touring opera companies traveled to cities all over the US, including to Charleston, New Orleans, San Francisco and even Havana, Cuba. Until the 1860s, most operas were staged by Italian opera companies and sung in Italian, but after the failed revolution in Germany in 1848, many excellent German musicians and singers immigrated to the US, expanding the repertoire with German-language composers. By 1898, a big pool of American talent had been established, so that many operas could be sung in English, including at the South End's Grand Opera on Washington Street (since torn down). In the late 1890s, another huge immigration wave, from Eastern Europe, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, brought their favorite performers and audiences, including the Hebrew National Opera Company, which programmed Russian operas as well as many traditional ones like Carmen, but sung in Yiddish.
The first two operas of the Trial by Fire series, Tchaikovsy's The Maid of Orleans and Donizetti's Siege of Calais, received rave reviews. The next performances coming up are on December 1 (Dello Joio's The Trial at Rouen) at NEC's Jordan Hall; February 17, 2018 (Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Buecher) at the Sanders Theatre; and April 5 and 7 (Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco) at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. For details and reviews, visit the Odyssey Opera website, linked here.