The fabulous French Opera House dominated a vastly different Bourbon Street than the gaudy strip of today. Designed by James Gallier and erected in 1859, the Opera House became the cultural centerpiece of New Orleans both for hosting musical performances and later for its role in the annual carnival celebration.

The French Opera House was opened in New Orleans in 1859. Operas were held in the city as early as 1791, but the opening of the French Opera House on December 2, 1859, heralded a new era of grand opera in New Orleans. [1] The French Opera House was closed during the Civil War and was ultimately destroyed by a fire in 1919. [2] New Orleans was the first American city to support an opera company. The city of New Orleans was also rated “America’s Musical Capital” because of the prominent presence of opera. [3]

The French Opera House’s construction began in 1859 on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse Streets. It took 233 days and $118,500 to build. Constructors used bonfires as light to work on the opera house throughout the night. This contributed to its rapid construction. [9] Charles Boudousquie, the head of a stock company and later manager and commissioner of the French Opera House approached James Gallier, Jr. and Richard Easterbrook to build his opera house. [10]

The French Opera House was built in the style of European grand operas. The Greek revival building measured 166 feet on Bourbon Street and 187 on Toulouse Street. The central portion of the Bourbon Street façade projected onto the sidewalk. This arcade protected theatre-goers in bad weather. This was furthered by a gallery projecting over the street.
The auditorium was elliptical with the proscenium stage thrusting forward with a curved apron. There was an orchestra pit followed by curved parquette (orchestra) seating. Boxes lined the side of the parquette as well as the pit. Four tiers of seating curved along the walls of the auditorium. The first two tiers had stalls and boxes. The third tier held seats that provided cheap tickets for white patrons. Non-whites were only allowed in the fourth tier of seating. [11]
With this opera house and other theatres around the city, New Orleans became an American and world center for theatre. Aida was performed for the first time in the United States at the French Opera House in 1880. [12]

Though by far the most common type of performance, grand opera was not the only type of performances shown in the opera house. The theatre tried to vary the acts and audiences who came. German prima donna Madame Anna Grunewald performed Lachner’s operetta “Last Rendezvous” at the Opera House in 1865 after a world tour. The show also featured Vaudeville acts and comedies. [13, 14]

During the late 1800s, subscriptions could be bought for the season at Philip Werlein's Music Store at 135 Canal Street. Season tickets ranged from proscenium seats at $384 to balcony seats at $64. [17] The subscriptions could also be obtained at significantly lower prices at auctions. [18] In the 1900s, subscriptions were bought at Grunewald’s Music Store with prices ranging from $1500 for proscenium seats to $110 for balcony seats. [19]

In the 1800s the French Opera House was a cultural center as well as a theatre. The House was used during Mardi Gras as a meeting place for revelers before parades and to house the Mardi Gras balls. [20]

Even before the fire that destroyed the House, accidents were common. In 1854 during a comedy sketch by a Mr. Carrier, the upper two balconies of the theatre collapsed, killing two and injuring dozens. Almost all of those affected were Creole due to the location of their seats and the typical audience of that type of performance. [23]

The French Opera House was destroyed in a fire on December 4, 1919. The fire appeared to have started across the street in Silvestre's Restaurant. [24] The exterior walls were brick, but the interior was most likely wood as it only took a few hours for the fire to completely destroy the Opera House. [25] At the time of its destruction, the House was owned by the Tulane University fund. Damages from the fire were estimated at $250,000 but the building was insured for less than ten percent of that. [26] Despite efforts to rebuild, the theatre was closed for good.

After the fire, the site was used for a while as a lumber yard and also as a parking lot. Winthrop Rockefeller built a hotel, Le Downtowner du Vieux Carré, on the site in the mid-1960s, about the same time he was elected governor of Arkansas. The property has gone through several owners, names, and concepts since then; today it is owned by the Tonti family and operated as the Inn on Bourbon Street.



Bourbon Street and Toulouse Street, New Orleans, LA