Tuesday, March 26, 2013

At the Opera

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL, Ansonia Opera House, Part 2: 

Nothing happens at the opera house anymore. Most people don't even know it's here. It's a relic of its time and silent but for pigeons; except for those with the ears to hear more and the imagination to remember. 

The opera house speaks of the decade after the Civil War had boosted manufacturing. Factories increased production to turn out cannons and bullet shells for the war and swelled villages up and down Brass Valley. Transportation was good enough that performers were taking acts on the road and looking for good halls and new audiences.  In 1870 business leaders of the Borough of Ansonia, not yet a town, decided that Ansonia needed an Opera House. It seemed like a good idea. It would be the first in Connecticut.  It would make Ansonia a cultural Center.

It seemed like a good idea, a place for wholesome entertainment the whole family can enjoy; a place for performers to stop along their circuit: minstrels and medicine shows and opera stars on tour. A place they can play to paying crowds - not a theater for lowlifes but a cultural institution for the arts, a place our town can be proud of - a place also where borough meetings can be held or town meetings if Ansonia becomes an independent village. 

It should be a place that can be rented out for weddings and  jugglers and magicians and patent medicine salesmen. Think what crowds would pay if the great Jenny Lind made another U.S. tour and came and sang in Ansonia!  What a profound and uplifting impact that might have on young people especially!

It seemed like a good idea, an opera house on Main street, one with a row of shops on the first floor bringing in high rents, and a not-quite-grand promenade past suites of offices boasting the town's most distinguished address and similarly high rents to the more-nearly grand stair that folds back on itself as it reaches the third floor and patrons come face to face with the grand stage of Ansonia's own Opera House.

They built it in 1870. The men who had pioneered the brass and copper industry in the 1830s and 40s were in the 1870s becoming elderly and could look around them at towns they had built. Up and down the valley they sought to burnish their legacy with public buildings and infrastructure that would last.  What better investment than an opera house, a place to keep idle workers occupied and out of trouble? Not a music hall or a theater like you find in the sinful cities, but an Opera House to give the community culture.

The new Ansonia Opera House was run by Ansonia's leading citizens, investors in the enterprise who ran it so as to always turn a profit. When transportation improved so that audiences in Ansonia could easily travel to New Haven, New Haven stopped doing the Valley circuit. Even then the opera house could still take traveling vaudeville and novelty acts and more and more people were getting married and then there was the skating. Annually high school seniors took their diplomas here and it became part of their lives. In this manner the Ansonia Opera House continued to serve the community and profit investors through World War II.

After the war things were different. More and more people went to the movies or stayed home and most of the time the opera house was dark, except for the skating, until that stopped too, and the school had its own auditorium.  Everyone was getting cars and televisions, and the old place was feeling creaky.  We took to the road and the opera house was taken over by a community of pigeons.  Back in the 70s some people tried to start an art center here and chased the pigeons out, but there were battles with town officials. It was a new age for fire safety too. After one performance the effort lost its wind, and the pigeons were back. It was another twenty years before the opera house was sold off by the City of Ansonia for payment of back taxes. The new owner patches things as best he can, but now it's always dark and there are always pigeons.