Friday, October 15, 2010

Boston Has an Opera House, Right?

If you walk on Washington Street (passed Boston Common Coffee), you will encounter a building emblazoned with the words: The Boston Opera House.  Surely, you must think, this is Boston’s opera house, where all opera should be performed.  Indeed, the Boston Ballet now calls this place home.  Why on earth doesn’t the Boston Lyric Opera or Opera Boston use this facility?  Because, quite simply, this building was built as a vaudeville theater and is not designed for opera. 

The B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre (as it was originally known) opened on October 29, 1928.  It was built under the supervision of Edward Franklin Albee (1857-1930) as a memorial to his late business partner, Benjamin Franklin Keith (1846-1914).  No expense was spared when the building was built.  After life as a vaudeville theater, it eventually became a movie house with the occasional vaudeville show.  In 1965, the theatre was purchased by the Sacks Theatre Company, who renamed the theatre the Savoy.  By 1978, when Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston was in desperate need of a home, her company bought the theatre, which it held until 1991, when her company went bankrupt.  The house fell into disrepair until 2002, when a major renovation by Clear Channel Communications was initiated.  When The Opera House was finally opened, its first show was The Lion King.

Unfortunately, the pit area is far too small to do any reputable operas, hence why it usually presents musicals.   Sarah Caldwell would not let this deter her in the pursuit of opera, except her bankruptcy, will can deter anyone, especially when people come looking for money!

The harsh reality is that Boston once did have an actual opera house, which opened on November 8, 1909, near Symphony Hall.  The building sat 2,700 people, had no obstructed views, and at the time, had the largest stage in the United States.  No expense was spared as the owner of the building, Eben D. Jordan, Jr. (of the department store Jordan Marsh) wanted Bostonians to experience opera in the grandest way possible.  Quite unfortunately, the organization that the opera house was built for, the Boston Opera Company, went bankrupt after a few short seasons.  The opera house was bought by the Shubert organization of New York.  This is the same organization that owns the present-day Shubert Theatre in Boston, where Boston Lyric Opera presents operas.  With a capacity of 1,600 or so, it is very small compared to other opera performance venues and it is unsuitable for most large opera productions. 

The Boston Opera House continued to show opera and other shows until the 1950’s, when it was decided to tear down the opera house.  It was thought to be structurally deficient and the City of Boston demanded that the Shuberts pay $300,000 to fix the foundation.  The Shuberts decided not to pay the money, tried to sell it to the city, and was unsuccessful.  With the city unwilling to buy the structure, the Shuberts sold it for $135,000 to S. and A. Allen Construction Company on September 4, 1957, a firm that specialized in auto parking lots and garages.  The Allen Construction Company claimed though that it had not yet been decided if the opera house would be demolished for a parking lot at the time of the sale. 

The president of Northeastern University, Dr. Carl S. Ell, decided to purchase the building from the Allen Construction Company and build a women’s dormitory in its place.  He had been looking at ways to fix the chronic overcrowding of Northeastern and this seemed to be a perfect solution to his problem.  On September 25, 1957, the Opera House was sold to Northeastern for $160,000 and torn down in the summer of 1958.

Yes, you unfortunately read that right: the opera house was torn down.  Such a beautiful, majestic structure was reduced to rubble.  The women's dormitory that was built in its place is still standing.  The City of Boston deserves and needs a new opera house.  Imagine what operas Boston Lyric Opera, with the right facility, could do.  Hopefully, in the near future, this dream will become a reality. 

-Rob Tedesco, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

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