It was on this date in 1735 that the first opera performance in America took place. The opera was Flora, and it was performed in Charleston, South Carolina.
As North Dakota entered statehood, many small towns boasted opera houses where rough-hewn farm families could enjoy “higher” culture. In his book, “The Story of North Dakota,” Erling Rolfsrud wrote of the Grand Forks Metropolitan Opera House, which survived the 1997 flood:
When North Dakota’s first governor spoke at the dedication of the Metropolitan Opera House at Grand Forks on November 10, 1890, he declared: “The formal opening of this magnificent auditorium, which is this night dedicated to music and the Thespian arts, puts behind us the primitiveness of the frontier and brings us to a new period of enlarged and increased social advantages that are really metropolitan.”
The audience of ladies in black silk and gentlemen in evening attire applauded with delight. Like others who gathered in similar ornate theaters in North Dakota cities – and in small-town structures ornate only in name – they felt they were entering upon a new era of cultural advancement.
Many stage personalities from New York performed in the larger “opera houses”… Al Jolson played his first individual role at the Grand Theater in Fargo. Boris Karloff, for over a year, appeared in new plays every week at the Jacobson Opera House at Minot. Operas, vaudeville shows, boxing and wrestling matches, home talent productions, lectures, political rallies, graduations, and concerts – all took place in the opera houses which served as entertainment centers until movie theaters replaced them.
Among the few opera houses that still survive, the Fargo Theater has received a complete renovation, including a total restoration of its “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ. In his book, “The History of North Dakota,” Elwyn Robinson wrote that in 1879, an Englishman, Finlay Dun, was in the audience. In the London Times, Dun wrote that the performances at the Fargo Theater were seen by large numbers of “dark-visaged farm fellows with slouch hats, many with blue guernseys, some lumberers in red flannel jackets, an occasional Indian, and many (mixed-bloods).”
In Devils Lake, the building now designated “The Opera House Apartments” has an interesting story. Sam Wineman, the privileged son of a wealthy NY/London financier, built a three-story men’s wear store in 1892 and turned over the second floor to his wife, Trina, so she could indulge her passion for opera. Some of the original features of this “Opera House” include a majestic staircase and classy, ornate, metal-cased bay windows on the north side facing Fourth Street.
Another surviving building, the Ellendale Opera House, suffered a partial collapse of its roof in 2001. Thankfully, the building has been saved, and Historic Preservation Fund grant money is allowing renovation to begin on the Opera House Block. Other opera houses may be intact around the state, including one in Ray but, sadly, most fell into disrepair or were converted for other uses over the years.
Speaking of multi-use Opera Houses, we have an idea for one where you could get your hair cut while listening to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. We’d call it The Barber of Sentinel Butte…
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm