‘A Seminal Moment’: Event Marks the 150th Anniversary of the Opera House

Newport Opera House 150th Anniversary

(Newport Daily News, By Sean Flynn)

NEWPORT — The 150th anniversary of the original opening of the Opera House on Dec. 28, 1867, was celebrated by 150 guests Thursday night at the Colony House and the new Stoneacre Brasserie on Washington Square.

“The important thing about tonight is the role the Opera House has played during the past 150 years,” said Alison Vareika, chairwoman of the board of directors, as the event got underway. “It has been at the center of the community for Newport, Aquidneck Island and Newport County. We are bringing that back. It’s for the people.”

The Opera House is now undergoing an $18.3 million reconstruction with a new grand reopening now targeted for late 2018, still within the anniversary year.

“Tonight, we are also celebrating the completion of phase one and all the spectacular work that has been done so far,” said John Shehan, chairman of the Opera House building committee and a member of the board.

“We’re looking forward to continuing for another 150 years,” he said. “It’s a seminal moment.”

That past grand opening was reported on by The Newport Daily News on Dec. 30, 1867.

“The new Opera House is now fairly opened, the enacting of Lucretia Borgia on Saturday night by artists thoroughly conversant with that tragedy and on Monday night by the wonderful Children of the Sun, whose feats and illusion are more marvelous than our childhood’s remembrance of that Prince of Fakirs, Signor Blitz,” was the opening line of the article.

The Fusi Yama Troupe, featuring Japanese acrobats, were featured in the Opera House on Dec. 30-31, 1867.

“This most extraordinary troupe consists of the best top spinners, magicians, balancers, gymnasts, acrobats and musicians ever permitted to leave the Dominion of His Highness …,” said an ad in The Newport Daily News at the time.

Newport native Commodore Matthew C. Perry had just opened Japan to the world in 1854, when the Kanagawa Treaty was signed, so having Japanese performers here was still new.

The board of directors of the new Opera House Theater & Performing Arts Center wanted Thursday night’s celebration to be in the same spirit of the original opening, said Liz Drayton, patron relations manager for the Opera House.

Jazz singer Shenel Johns and her quartet were featured performers both in the Colony House and later at Stoneacre. Harpist Arilyn Mitchell, now with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, also performed in the Colony House.

In homage to the Fusi Yama Troupe, Nimble Arts of Brattleboro, Vermont, which creates inventive works of theatrical circus featuring performers such as aerialists, performed at both the Colony House and Stoneacre.

Between 1867 and 1929, the year the Opera House was converted to a movie theater, thousands of performers appeared on stage, many of them national figures.

“It’s been so much fun as we continue to research the history,” said Tom Hockaday, an Opera House board member.

“We recently found out that Mark Twain was here in 1875, when he was at the top of his game,” he said. “We had Oscar Wilde on our stage.”

Edwin Booth, the acclaimed “prince of the stage” of his time, performed with his theater company at the Opera House in November 1872. His stage successes were overshadowed by the actions of his brother, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Buffalo Bill Cody and his troupe performed “Knight of the Plains” at the Opera House on Nov. 12, 1878, according to The Newport Daily News. He brought with him Pawnee and Nez Perces Native Americans. He returned with his troupe on April 7, 1882, with a new drama, “Prairie Wolf,” featuring “Beautiful Sioux Indian Princess He-Hu-Kaw (The First Born).”

Maud Banks, a stage actress and women’s rights champion, performed in the play “Her Evil Genius” on April 6, 1888. She was quoted in a magazine story six years later: “I wonder if the time will ever come when an earnest, strong face in a woman will be as good to the general sight as a peach complexion or a languishing eye?”

The staff and volunteers of the Opera House have compiled 17 pages containing lists of performances, performers and events that took place on the local stage during the first 50 years of its history.

“The Newport Historical Society had boxes of old Opera House programs in its basement,” Drayton said. “There was a lot of comedy, small operettas, musical choruses and many community events.”

“We haven’t found any burlesque yet,” Hockaday said. “The Quaker tradition in the city may have prevented that from happening.”

The Opera House programs were moved into up-to-date archives after recent renovations, and Drayton, Vareika, Jean Lewis, Cynthia Lafferty and Kate Mitchell went through them gathering samples of the overwhelming amount of historical information.

“We’re only just beginning,” Hockaday said.

He said a volunteer recently found an Opera House program from the 1890s, featuring a Navy acting group, in a flea market in New York City.

“There are lots of Opera House pieces still out there in the community,” Drayton said.

Performing arts centers, music halls and theaters opened up after the Civil War as communities sought to come together, she said.

“Traveling shows came into Newport on the railroad and then went over to New Bedford, up to Boston, or west to Hartford,” she said. “The Opera House was a way to connect to other communities.”

People had a thirst for live performances during the first 50 or so years, but then movies and news reels from around the world became dominant when the Opera House converted to a cinema in 1929, she said. In the 1970s, people wanted more choice in films, so the Opera House was converted to a triplex movie theater, she said.

Now that people have smartphones and electronic devices that stream a constant flow of entertainment and information, there is again a thirst for live performances in a setting where people can interact with each other, Drayton said.

“We are retooling for the next 50 years,” she said.

The reconstructed theater will have 500 seats in the orchestra level and 200 seats in the balcony, which is less than the 1,000 seats the Opera House had when it opened in 1867. The footprint of one of today’s seats is almost double what it was at that time, because today’s patrons just need more room.

“It’s a Goldilocks theater — not too big, not too small,” Drayton said. “It’s perfect. No one will be more than 60 feet from the stage, and there are no obstructions to views.”

To reach the goal of completion, though, the Opera House still needs to raise $5 million from the community, Drayton said.

A donor has pledged to match donations up to a $50,000 total, if the donations are made before the end of the year.

“We’re up to $40,000 now,” Drayton said. “It’s the perfect time to donate now and have your donation doubled.”

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