The French Opera House

The French Opera House stood at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse Streets from 1859 until it was destroyed by fire in 1919. Designed by James Gallier, Jr., the hall was commissioned by Charles Boudousquie, then the director of the opera company, which h ad previously made its home in the Orleans Theater. After a dispute with new owners of the Orleans, Boudousquie determined to build a grand new house for French opera. The building went up in less than a year at a cost of $118,500 and for the next sixty years, it was the center of social activity in New Orleans. Not only opera was held there, but also Carnival balls, debuts, benefits, receptions, and concerts. By 1913, however, the house had fallen on hard times and was forced into receivership. An a nonymous donor (actually William Ratcliffe Irby) purchased the building and donated it to Tulane University, along with the wherewithal to operate it. The building reopened, and the future looked bright--until the building went up in flames on the night of December 4, 1919. [WPA Photograph Collection]

The French Opera House itself was the most fashionable establishment in New Orleans in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Simply to attend the opera there was a social event of importance, replete with ritual and tradition.

[Robert Tallant. Romantic New Orleanians. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1950, p. 119]

The first night of the opera season is the opening of the social season in New Orleans, and the opera itself is the most important feature of New Orleans social life. For nearly a century it has held the undisputed first place in the hearts of the people of the delightful old French-American city, and it grows each year in popularity and in pride of place. It must be understood, however, that New Orleans loves her French opera not because of the social side of the operatic season, but because she has be en taught for generations to love it for the music and for art's sake. . . . The music and musicians are the first consideration in this splendid old house; consequently New Orleans knows her great composers, her Mozart, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi, in grea t detail, and knowing them so is able to listen and enjoy the understandingly. Another thing which adds to New Orleans's enjoyment of French opera, and has doubtless had much to do with the great popularity of the institution, is the fact that one-fourth of the population of the city speaks French in ordinary daily intercourse, while another two-fourths is able to understand the language perfectly.

[Leslie's Weekly. December 11, 1902]