Last weekend my wife and I had the chance to go to Pittsburgh and see the opera “Carmen” put on by the Pittsburgh Opera. The performance was spectacular. The live orchestra music, coupled with the perfect acting and sets, in the glamorous Benedum Center was simply amazing.
It wasn’t the first time we saw the production. The last time “Carmen” was played in Pittsburgh in 2015, and my wife and I also saw it then. We love going to the opera. In fact, one of our first dates was a trip to the Benedum to see “The Barber of Seville”, Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 masterpiece. Even though the majority of the performances are extremely old, the themes, history and passion of the productions still resonate with a modern viewer. Therefore, they hold up well in the 21st century.
The Pittsburgh Opera does a fantastic job of bringing their performances to life. The Opera “Carmen”, for example, was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875, according to the program. I think it would be hard to find a great stage production still playing 147 years after its debut. In this way, we can get in touch with our past. Listening to music and witnessing a performance that might have been known to generations past is something appealing for an antique dealer and therefore very much in my field.
Today, the closest place to see a grand opera like “Carmen” would be in Pittsburgh, but that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time right here in Steubenville, there were at least two opera houses in operation in the second half of the 19th century.
According to John Holmes in his book “In memory of Steubenville”, Kilgore Hall, built in 1830 on Market Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, was the city’s favorite venue for stage performances. By 1868, however, larger-scale shows were touring the country and needed more space for their productions. According to Holmes, that year the Grand English Opera Co. was touring the United States with the prima donna Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa. Performances were held in Pittsburgh and Wheeling but not in Steubenville because there was no venue suitable for the show. With this in mind for the city’s elite, Kilgore Hall was purchased by HG Garrett in 1869 and underwent extensive refurbishment including a larger stage, trapdoors, 80 gas jets for lighting and seating for 1,000 guests.
Garrett’s was the only theater in town big enough for grand performances, but that all changed in 1883 when the town of Steubenville entered the theater business. That year, the city built its new municipal building on the land previously occupied by the market house. This land is now the large green space next to the current city building on Market Street across from the Jefferson County Courthouse today. This building, according to the 1897 Centennial Book of Remembrance, cost $65,000 to construct with MM. Fickes and Kell as contractors. The brick building had three stories with the ground floor occupied by the post office, public library, school board, council chambers, water works offices, town clerk, street commissioners and two storage rooms. The mayor’s office, the attorney, and the school board rooms were on the upper floors.
What comprised the majority of the second and third floors was the City Opera House. City attorney Charles Reynolds operated the theater for the city. The first performance took place on August 27, 1883, with the production of “The Lights of London.” The show premiered at the Princess Theater in London in September 1881, and by 1883 traveled to the new world. Many original actors performed in Steubenville, and the Wheeling Opera Orchestra provided the music. Over the next few years, many shows were held in the theater, although the city did not lease management of the facility until after a year. The theater eventually became known as the Victoria Theater in the early 20th century.
Around the time the City Opera House opened, a well-known local and opera singer was making headlines in New York and Boston for his performances. William H. MacDonald was born here in 1849 and excelled in singing from an early age. In 1873, he disembarked with three other natives of Steubenville interested in doing some in the arts, for Europe in order to study their craft.
MacDonald studied in Germany, England and Italy for four years to hone his vocal talent. Upon his return to the United States, he joined a group of artists known as The Bostonians and became a co-owner. This group became one of the first successful national touring companies and is credited with making English opera popular in the United States. With MacDonald as co-owner of the company, they produced many hugely popular shows including “HMS Pinafore” in 1879, “Prince Ananias” in 1894 and “The Serenade” in 1897 among many others. By far the best known production was “Robin Hood” in 1890. This production toured the country and was hugely popular in its day, performing over 2,000 times.
It made Bostonians and William H. MacDonald, who played Little John, a household name. MacDonald married another well-known Boston singer called Maria Stone, who was also a member of the troupe. In 1900, the Steubenville Herald-Star called him America’s most popular singer.
In 1905, Bostonians, for many different reasons, closed their business. MacDonald then starred in other productions with his business partner, Henry Clay Barnabee. Tragically, in March 1906, while in Springfield, Mass., for a production of “The Free Lance” an opera by John Phillip Sousa, he died suddenly at the age of 56. Although he was successful, he made no provision for his widow, and a benefit was held in New York in December 1906 by the theater elite to help Mrs. MacDonald and Barnabee financially, eventually raising over 20,000 $. William MacDonald’s remains were returned to Steubenville and he was buried in Union Cemetery on his family plot.
MacDonald is known to have performed with his company at least three times at the Steubenville Opera, and produced performances, according to Joseph Doyle in his book, “History of Steubenville and Jefferson County”, went to the erection of the Stanton Monument. The Steubenville Opera House survived as a theater until the late 1920s. In 1929 the old town building was demolished to make way for what was called the Town Building Annex . Now that building is also gone, replaced by the beautiful green space that more closely matches its appearance when Bezaleel Wells donated the property to the city so long ago.
Looking at pictures of the Old Town building and the Opera House, I could only imagine what it was like to see a performance there. It would definitely have been a destination for my wife and I. But since he left, I can only close my eyes and imagine that I am witnessing a great performance and beautiful music. And that suits my old soul just fine.