Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
San Francisco has long claimed the first American performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in March 1898 and is given credit for that distinction in various works of reference, including the Victor Book of the Opera.
The recently discovered evidence, however, seems to prove conclusively that the honor goes to Los Angeles, the first North American performance having been given by the Del Conte Italian Grand Opera Company, which had been brought from Lima, Peru.
The performance took place in the New Los Angeles Theater Oct. 14, 1897. The treasurer’s statement showed a gross intake of $436.25 ($9,665.38 USD 2005).
Somewhere on the west side of Spring Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets (around the site of The Times parking structure), the story of Rodolfo, the struggling poet, and Mimi, the dying flower girl, was introduced to American audiences at the New Los Angeles Theater.
Although it is sometimes confused with Turnverein Hall, the New Los Angeles Theater was actually next door. Built in 1888, the New Los Angeles was a four-story stone building 60 feet by 160 feet that abutted the old City Hall on Fort Street, later renamed Broadway. The main auditorium was 60 feet by 80 feet and accommodated 1,200 people, with seating on the main floor and two balconies.
The Italian Grand Opera Company came to Los Angeles from a tour of Mexico, bringing a troupe of 91 people, its own scenery and a 31-piece orchestra, so large that the first two rows of seats were removed. (Interestingly enough, maestro Vallini conducted from the piano).
“La Boheme” starred Giuseppe Agostini (Rodolfo), Linda Montanari (Mimi), Cleopatra Vivini (Musetta), Cesare Cioni (Marcello) and a baritone named Francesconi who presumably performed Schaunard.
Although attendance was disappointing for the first performance (The Times reported that the house was two-thirds full) it received lavish praise in an unsigned review.
“It is a chance of a lifetime to hear such glorious music as is nightly filling the spaces of the theater as they were never filled before, and those who miss this series of operas little appreciate that they are passing by a very Klondike of melody.”
Those who did attend, however, were spirited in their acclaim: “There was a great scene at the close of Act III last night, when the curtain dropped after the quartet. The house was in a whirlwind of applause. The singers returned once, twice, thrice and bowed in graceful acknowledgement. Still the cries of “bravo” kept on, mingled with lusty hand-clapping. The singers returned and found that the leader had left his chair. Montanari signaled that they could not sing for there was no accompaniment, but Vallini was hurried out from beneath the stage, resumed his chair at the piano, and the great number was repeated and received a second ovation.”
The productions proved so popular that the company returned for a second engagement later in the month—to a packed house.
But before Los Angeles boasts too much about its place in operatic history, it should be noted that the touring company had performed “La Boheme” in Guadalajara and Guanajuato before reaching the U.S.
Bonus factoid: “Las Campanas de Capistrano,” Mexico’s first all-talking motion picture, received its world premiere at the International California Theater, Main at 8th Street, Oct. 3, 1930.