In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Boston Has an Opera House, Right?

Oct 15, 2010 3:00:00 PM
By BLO Staff

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

Topics: Student Posts, General Opera

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