Opera Houses of the Genesee Country: Perceived Indicators of Economic and Cultural Success
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AuthorOakes, Jane E.
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AbstractDuring the half-century following the end of the Civil War, over fifty opera houses were built across the Genesee Country of New York State- a region extending from the western edge of the Finger Lakes to the eastern border of the Niagara region. Although little different from their earlier counterparts, called 'halls', the conscious choice to call a newly built or acquired entertainment hall an opera house reflected a desire on the part of both town and builder to be thought of as appreciative of higher culture and the arts, and of having the financial stability to create and support such a venue. These opera houses were what I believe to be perceived indicators of a town's cultural and economic progress: that is, they were understood on the part of the financier and community at large to be visible evidence to outsiders of the town's cultural sensitivity and financial security. In addition, the construction of an opera house conferred on the builder/financier a secure place within the town's social hierarchy as that of benefactor and promoter of the common good. Eloquent speeches outlining the town's gratitude for such a place of entertainment were often a major part of opening night ceremonies at the new opera house. Thus, the perception of an opera house as being representative of economic and cultural success exists on a dual level- that of the political entity and its inhabitants, and that of the individual builder. Leisure time was increasing during the last part of the 19th century, due to changes in technology and labor laws, and in many social circles attending performances at the local opera house was considered to be preferable to attending those at vaudeville theaters, burlesque houses, circuses, or taverns. Opera houses were perceived as offering a higher, more morally desirable quality of entertainment than many other venues- a perception often utilized by acting companies and theater managers in their advertising. By studying the plays, touring and local acts, newspaper advertisements and playbills associated with local opera houses, it is possible to further our understanding of how a community's opera house reflected cultural transitions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These changes were happening nationally as well, as an agrarian society changed to one more urban- and industrially- based. New technologies, economic growth, and increasingly more complex national rail infrastructure influenced the rise in popularity of the opera house both in the study region and on the national level. Conversely, all these factors also played a role in the demise of the opera house as cultural icon. Still, even though their heyday has long since passed, many citizens of towns which possessed one of these structures have spoken with pride in the fact that their town once had one. More than a century after these structures were built, the perception that an opera house represented their town's elevated level of prosperity and cultural achievement still exists in this region today.