Academy of Music

Opera Philadelphia presents its Opera at the Academy series at the Academy of Music, located at Broad and Locust Streets in center city Philadelphia.

Owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, this magnificent 19th century opera house is the oldest venue in the United States still used for its original purpose.

Since its opening in 1857 the Academy has seen events such as the American premiere of Faust and performances by such legendary figures as Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Mahler and many others. 1902 saw a series of operas produced by Pietro Mascagni. A 1907 performance of Madama Butterfly starring Caruso and Farrar was attended by Puccini.

A nineteenth century view of the Academy

The demands of operatic scenery were given consideration during the planning phase in 1855 when the architects, LeBrun and Rungé, wrote "The following qualities are absolutely necessary in a perfectly constructed stage:... that we should be able to simultaneously elevate all the scenery entirely above the canopies, to drop it beneath the stage, and to move it horizontally on either side. All these conditions are fulfilled in the construction of our stage, which combines the excellencies of the most celebrated European theatres". Their success was attested to in a review of 1857's Il Trovatore by the New York Tribune"Of all the remarkable things brought to attention by the opening of this new temple of the Muses, the beauty of the scenery attracted the most admiration.... The great height of the stage and the excellent arrangement of the 'flies' added increased charms to this department, the result of which must have been highly gratifying to the artists".

The Academy's acoustics were a prime concern of its architects, who wrote in 1854, "By reference to the sections, it will be observed, that it has been designed in the most approved manner for acoustic effects. The space it occupies is solidly walled in from the foundation up to its floor, and an inverted brick arch would be built along its whole length, against the soil on which it is constructed. Its wooden floor is of slightly convex form, and is proposed to be framed and boarded with white pine, of the lightest scantling, and kept disconnected from any other wood work; in its covering, apertures would be made at intervals; the whole combination being such as to produce the effect of a perfect sounding board".

The building has seen many renovations over the years. Electric lighting made its debut in 1872; 1884 saw the conversion of the chandelier to electricity and other improvements. By the turn of the century all the gas lights had been replaced with safer electric units. 1908 saw further renovation of the seating, lobbies and chandelier and in 1916 the press reported"several improvements on the stage and in the lighting arrangements of the house will be made, and that the whole plan is to make the Academy a centre for the literary, musical and civic interests of the city".

Backstage at the Academy

In 1918 Leopold Stokowski was quoted as saying "As everyone knows, the Academy will be condemned sooner or later. Why don't the people of Philadelphia get together now and prepare plans for a new, modern structure on the Parkway?" Shortly afterwards the Academy's conversion to a movie theatre was contemplated. Renovations were carried out in 1920 including the removal of the forestage, changes in the seating plan which expanded capacity to 3000, new stage equipment and new dressing rooms. Nevertheless, demolition was actually considered in 1934 to make way for a parking lot.

When the Philadelphia Orchestra acquired a controlling interest in the Academy in 1950 a study by an engineering firm recommended improvements in the areas of safety, comfort and appearance. In a plea for preservation Stuart F. Louchheim, president of the Academy said "culturally, it means to this city, if not to the nation, what Independence Hall means historically". Working during the summers so as not to disturb performance schedules, major restoration began in 1957 with work on the chandelier, woodwork, murals and construction of a new orchestra shell; the restoration continued through 1963.

Recently major renovation of the Academy, the "Twenty First Century Plan" was begun by The Philadelphia Orchestra during 1995. This project, which will take a number of years to complete, will modernize both the audience and backstage facilities and provide structural improvements. Once completed, these improvements will insure the survival of the "Grand Old Lady of Broad Street" for future generations of opera-goers.

Much of the information in this article is courtesy of John Francis Marion's book Within These Walls (Academy of Music, Philadelphia 1984).




Balcony Circle

Family Circle