The Grand Old Lady of Locust Street

Classic Arts Features   The Grand Old Lady of Locust Street
 
Philadelphia's Academy of Music, America's first opera house, turns 150 years old in January 2007.


It took no less than five attempts over a 16-year period to build a grand opera house in Philadelphia before the gala opening of the Academy of Music on January 26, 1857. William Parker Foulke, a prominent Philadelphian, recorded the ideals of the various groups leading these attempts, including the goals "to lay the foundation of such a system as would enable us hereafter to command the best musical and dramatic talent of the world" and "to provide for the cultivation of such talent amongst ourselves."

One hundred and fifty years later, the Academy of Music has done that and much more. The list of celebrated artists to have graced the Academy's stage is enormous. And the list of Philadelphia-grown artists, ensembles, and arts organizations to perform or present there is similarly impressive.

Built with a primary intended purpose of presenting grand opera, the Academy has a long and distinguished history in the art form. A select list of legendary singers to perform there includes sopranos Adelina Patti (who sang a command performance of Martha for the Prince of Wales in 1860), Maria Callas (who sang her first Norma there in 1956), Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, and Joan Sutherland; contralto Marian Anderson; and tenors Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti. The first opera performed at the Academy in February 1857, just four years after the premiere in Rome, was Verdi's Il trovatore. Operas to have their United States premieres there include Gounod's Faust in 1863, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in 1876, and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in the 1928-29 season. Beginning in 1884, the Metropolitan Opera visited the Academy to reprise each season's New York opening performance — a practice that continued through the 1960s.

Before long, the Academy housed an opera company of Philadelphia's own. The Philadelphia Grand Opera Company had an impressive early history that included a collaboration with Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra in presenting the U.S. premiere of the staged version of Berg's Wozzeck at the Academy in 1931. In 1975 the company merged with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company to form the Opera Company of Philadelphia. More than three decades later, the Opera Company still fosters the original intentions of the Academy's founders by casting productions with a unique blend of international stars and rising young talent. With the 2006 world premiere of its first co-commission, Margaret Garner, by Richard Danielpour with a libretto by Toni Morrison, the Opera Company of Philadelphia continues to keep Philadelphia and the Academy of Music in the international spotlight.

Ballet at the Academy has a similarly distinguished history. A little known fact is the childhood appearance, in the 1857 opening season, of the seven-year-old Enrico Cecchetti, who would go on to found his own school of dance and become one of the legendary teachers of all time, his pupils including Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Alicia Markova, and Ninette de Valois. Many of these pupils later brought their own companies to the Academy. Pavlova was a regular visitor in the 1920s; Massine choreographed the U.S. staged premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring with Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930; de Valois brought her Sadler's Wells Ballet Company (later the Royal Ballet) with legendary artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the 1950s and '60s.

The Academy has housed Philadelphia's own ballet companies, too: the Catherine Littlefield Ballet Company, formed in 1936, and beginning in 1963, the Pennsylvania Ballet, led by Balanchine prot_g_e Barbara Weisberger. Forty years on, no Philadelphia Christmas would be complete without a visit to Pennsylvania Ballet's annual presentation of its holiday spectacular The Nutcracker. And the company's recent history includes the 2004 world premiere, at the Academy, of Christopher Wheeldon's new production of the perennial favorite Swan Lake, a Pennsylvania Ballet commission for its 40th anniversary.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is, of course, the Academy tenant with the history most inextricably bound up with her own. From its first performance under the baton of Fritz Scheel in November 1900, the ensemble grew quickly in annual concerts and artistic esteem — so much so that Richard Strauss, conducting two programs of his own works in 1904, complimented the young orchestra on its proficiency. Following the arrival of Stokowski as music director in 1912, the Orchestra rose sharply in international prominence and the Academy became the site of numerous world premieres, including Varse's Arcana, Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, and the violin concertos of Samuel Barber and Arnold Schoenberg. The Orchestra also gave countless U.S. premieres, including seven of the 15 symphonies of Shostakovich and three of the seven symphonies of Sibelius, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and — in a 1916 performance with 1,069 performers on a specially built stage — his Symphony No. 8. (Mahler himself had appeared at the Academy numerous times conducting the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society of New York — following in a line of distinguished composers to conduct there that began with Tchaikovsky in 1891 and includes Strauss, Stravinsky, Copland, and many others.)

In 1957 the relationship between the Academy and the Orchestra strengthened when the American Academy of Music, the corporation that built and operated the house for its first century, liquidated, and Academy of Music, Inc., was formed as a subsidiary of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. That year and each since, The Philadelphia Orchestra, along with a glittering array of guest artists, has performed at the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball — one of the most successful single-night fund-raisers in the country — proceeds from which have funded the restoration work that has kept the Academy vital. Since moving to its new home in Verizon Hall in December 2001, the Orchestra has returned each year to its original home in the Academy for the Anniversary Concert, as it will on January 27 for the culmination of celebrations of the Academy's 150th Anniversary.

Vaudeville, drama, fashion shows, lectures, political and social events — the Academy has hosted them all, having even withstood a football game between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, a gymnastics tournament, and the appearance of the famed Austrian Lipizzaner stallions. Generations of graduates have walked across its stage at commencement ceremonies. Thomas Jefferson University has held graduations there since the early 1880s; the University of Pennsylvania, football games aside, has gathered within its walls to welcome new presidents, and, for many years, celebrate University Day. The University of Pennsylvania Law School remained among local schools holding commencement ceremonies there in 2006, along with Moore College of Art and Temple University's schools of medicine, podiatry, and dentistry.

Functioning as a civic forum on both a local and national scale since the Civil War era, when the Academy was a frequent host to patriotic performances and wartime benefits, events there have mirrored the great events of the times. Especially notable: the Second Reunion of the Army of the Potomac in 1870, at which Ulysses S. Grant met with deafening applause; Alexander Graham Bell's 1877 demonstration during which he transmitted live music from New York into the Academy by telephone; a banquet in the ballroom for all nine Supreme Court Justices on the centenary of the U.S. Constitution in 1887; the first U.S. appearance of Winston Churchill in 1900; General John J. Pershing's plea from the Academy stage after World War I to aid the 3.5 million starving children of Europe; and the triumphant return of native Philadelphian Marian Anderson to a rapturous reception just days after her historic appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Today the Academy of Music sits proudly as a crown jewel of the Avenue of the Arts, surrounded by young and vibrant neighbors — the Kimmel Center, the Prince Music Theater, the Wilma Theater, and the performance venues of the University of the Arts. She comfortably houses both the old and the new: as home to the Kimmel Center's "Broadway at the Academy" series, she is recognized as one of the premier locations for Broadway theater in the country, while audiences of musical ensembles that have performed in her auditorium since the 19th century still return.

John Marion, author of Within These Walls, the definitive history of the Academy of Music, completed following her 125th anniversary in 1982, says, "Standing as it does, assured and self-possessed as a dowager very much aware of her position, [the Academy of Music] is a repository of the sights and sounds — theatrical, operatic, symphonic, political, and social — of 125 years of Philadelphia's and the nation's history." A quarter of a century later, his words remain true.


Amanda Mitchell-Boyask is a former vice president of the Curtis Institute of Music, where she edited and wrote feature articles for the Curtis publication Overtones. She is currently a consultant for the Academy of Music's Restoration Fund.


Recommended Reading: