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Philadelphia's Academy of Music is both a celebrated historical landmark and a current focus of cultural life in the city. Built in 1857, owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and part of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, this magnificent 19th century opera house is the oldest venue in the United States still used for its original purpose. The Academy is home to the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet and “Broadway at the Academy,” a series of national productions, as well as classical and pop concerts, and live comedy. For more than a century, its most famous resident was the Philadelphia Orchestra, which returns every January to play the Academy Anniversary Concert and Ball. 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.

  • Opened in 1857, the Academy is the oldest grand opera house in the United States still used for its original purpose. Image via Theatrical Index (reproduced under Fair Use).
  • Proscenium wall and boxes. Architectural ornament by Charles Bushor and Joseph A. Bailly. Image from Historic American Buildings Survey via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
  • Building, Plant, Daytime, Window

As early as 1839, attempts were made to build a grand opera house in Philadelphia. It was not until 1852 that a stock offering was tendered for what is known today as "the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street." To make it official and as an appeal to the public, the "Charter and Prospectus of The Opera House or American Academy of Music" was published in 1852. This document set forth the features of construction, the details of management and the advantages of investing in the proposed endeavor. On the architectural competition for the Academy's design, fifteen architects submitted designs between October 3 and December 15 of 1854. The winners were announced on February 12, 1855. Gustav Rungé and Napoleon le Brun won the $400 prize. It was their idea to dedicate the Academy to Mozart’s memory. Within four months the ground-breaking took place. This project was so important that President Franklin Pierce, along with Governor James Pollock and Mayor Robert T. Conrad, laid the cornerstone on July 26, 1855.

On January 26, 1857, the Academy held the Grand Ball and Promenade Concert of its opening. The first opera presented in the brand new opera house was Verdi’s “Il trovatore” on February 25, 1857. Gounod’s opera Faust had its American premiere here on November 18, 1863. On February 14, 1907, Madama Butterfly premiered to “emphatic success” with its composer, Giacomo Puccini, in attendance. Numerous presidents have visited the Academy, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon, and also many world-famous performers on its stage: Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Anna Pavlova, George Gershwin, Arturo Toscanini, Marian Anderson, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti to name but a few.

This free standing brick Renaissance Revival Style building exhibits a free use of classical forms. The interior of the Academy, with its columnned proscenium and tiers of boxes, should probably be regarded as a very early American example of the Neo-Baroque style which was just coming into vogue in the France of Louis Napoleon and to which Lebrun's French ancestry would naturally have inclined him. The plan is said to have been based upon that of Teatro della Scala of Milan, but the accoustical properties of the auditorium have seldom been equalled. Because so much of the Academy was constructed of wood and thereby more mellow tones were projected, the pits and the domed ceiling of the building were designed to provide resonance and accoustical excellence.

As the guests enter the Opera House’s main hall, there above the proscenium arch, over the Academy stage, a bas-relief of Mozart looks down upon the audience. This place of prominence for Mozart indicates that the builders of the Academy expected to attract the finest performing arts known to the world. The Academy was made a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1963. Since then, a few changes have been made to the structure. In 1996 the “Twenty-First Century Project” began, which allowed for a new rigging system, replacement of the stage floor, and cleaning and restoration of the historic ceiling. With Mozart’s image looking down on the Academy’s audiences from his position above the stage for over one hundred years, let the joy of opera and dance continue forever.

"National Register of Historic Places Inventory--Nomination Form: American Academy of Music." US Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service. Prepared December 1979. Accessed October 24, 2017. 

Opera Company of Philadelphia Education Department. "Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff." Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music. Produced 2007. Accessed October 24, 2017. 

"The Philadelphia Orchestra: A Historical Timeline." Philadelphia Orchestra. Accessed October 24, 2017.

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