The 1500 Opera Houses of Iowa (1870-1920)

The Opera Houses of Iowa by George D. Glenn and Richard Poole
The Opera Houses of Iowa by George D. Glenn and Richard Poole

I just got my copy of a book I discovered about a week ago–a book on Iowa Opera Houses from the turn of the century!

I while ago I had posted about the “66,000 opera companies across America” and as I was skeptical of the numbers it was nice that the poster, Digoweli, supplied some of his numbers/sources.  However, I don’t think we can talk about “Opera Companies” or even “Opera Houses” in the manner we think of what an Opera House is today.  As the Opera House page at the Iowa Pathways states about these Opera Houses:

England had many theaters built during the years of Shakespeare in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Some people objected to plays in theaters. They viewed this type of entertainment as immoral or dangerous for young minds. But music didn’t seem quite so bad. And opera seemed even more respectable.

So the phrase “opera house” became standard in the Midwest during the late 1800s to describe any structure that housed some type of entertainment, whether it was plays or musicals. Although the term “opera” house was used, operas were not the form of entertainment performed in Iowa’s opera houses. But some Iowans disapproved of any entertainment that was performed in the opera houses. Some rigid Protestants declared, “No good education ever occurred in theaters.”

Which makes more sense.  In different regions of the US they might have been named differently.  For example, I’ve played at the Orange Blossom Opry in Weirsdale, Florida and the much more famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee–the “Opry” is just a southern variant of the word Opera but Opera is hardly the entertainment forms (now or back when they formed) played at these mainstays venues of Country Music.

I maintain a facebook page about our very own New Albany Opera House which is what led me to the Iowa Opera Houses book in the first place, but similarly, in the Vol. II, Historical Series No. 17, we find the description of the founding of the Music Hall (which would later be named the Opera House):

With the close of the Civil War, a number of New Albany’s leading citizens conceived the idea of building a theatre which would match the rosy future which they foresaw for New Albany – a theatre to attract the leading traveling dramatic companies. Thus it was that in November 1866, the splendid new Music H all at Spring and Pearl was opened with pomp and ceremony. The Music Hall or Opera House as it came to be known, presented as its first attraction a popular play of the day – “Fashion, or Life in New York” – featuring Augusta Dargon, who also made the dedicatory address.

These were simply live entertainment venues where a variety of performances and community based public events could be held–the “Opera” just lent some credence to them.  We should resist the urge to think of the anachronistically as being venues that showed plays, Operettas, Vaudeville, as well as housing town meetings and dances–and later during the rise of movie theatres–roller skating!

Basically, the idea is there is a rich history of live performance, but we really understand so little of that history which is why as asked, Was there ever a “Before the crisis” in Classical Music!


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