History of the Levy Opera House:
The Levy Opera House: 1886-1896
Jefferson Levy's renovations of the Old Town Hall equipped the small center of Charlottesville culture for the changes taking place in the theater industry. New York's control over the theater circuits made it difficult for managers during these years to fight for the best travelling shows, and during this period Levy encountered problems with retaining managers. When shows did come to Charlottesville they now included larger casts of characters and large, intricate sets. As sacralization of culture slowly moved through the industry it also hit Charlottesville's small opera house. Residents pressured Levy through mediums such as newspapers to not only renovate the behind-the-scenes portions of the opera house, but also to provide comforts to the guests and improve their conditions. Sacralization also effected the re-naming of the building from the simple "Town Hall" to the culturally loaded "Levy Opera House."
The new stage measured 48 by 28 feet. After the war, the music industry became more organized, so Levy also added an orchestra pit in front of the stage to accommodate for the change. The elaborate scenery and costumes that became part of the popular theater landscape prompted Levy to also add dressing rooms for the performers beneath the stage.
For his paying audiences, Levy increased the amount of seating to 500 and sloped the floor in order to provide a better view of the stage. Wanting to add a touch of comfort for his guests, Levy also added elegant opera chairs and rid the opera house of the hard moveable benches. A horseshoe shaped gallery was also added. Audiences could also look at new double curtains, which were blue with billowing clouds on them.
The new opera house also could boast of a more clearly defined entertainment season. From mid-August to approximately the end of April or the beginning of May, audiences could purchase their tickets and be entertained. Ticket prices ranged from $.35, $.50, $1.00, $1.75 for minstrels and other light dramatic entertainment to $.50, $.75, $1.00, $1.25 for Shakespeare and other "straight" drama (including the popular melodrama). About twenty-three performances during a season consisted of minstrels and other performances and fifteen usually consisted of Shakespeare and other more sacralized dramatic and musical entertainment.
Fra Diavolo marked the return of opera to Charlottesville. The story revolved around a romantic character who steals from the rich and gives to the poor in Naples in 1647. During the 1830's, Fra Diavolo was very popular, and the tenor Ravelli revived the opera at the Metropolitan in 1885. The tenor who sung in Charlottesville is not known.
Other musical performances during the height of the Levy Opera House included the first symphony orchestra to play in Charlottesville. On December 9, 1891, Charlottesville residents received the pleasure of listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on their "Grand Festival Tour." For $1.00 per seat, audiences could enjoy the professional presentation of works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Martha, an opera, was also presented in the 1890's. During the middle of the nineteenth century this opera could boast of great popularity. When it returned with Lizzie Annandale to Charlottesville in 1891, it was a pleasing performance to most. Some, however, who were familiar with the songs from their popularity in family parlors during the 1850's, complained that it was not the best presentation of a very good opera. A comic opera, the Chimes of Normandy, also returned to the opera house during the 1890's. Chimes of Normandy involved a plot that centered on village life and romance.
The Levy Opera House presented theater genres as well. In 1889 the horse opera came to Charlottesville. After the popular Buffalo Bill shows during the first half of the 1880's, operas and other theater performances began to focus on frontier life. The popularity of elaborate set design combined with a focus on frontier living induced producers to include animals in their shows. When Fun in a Grocery was performed in the opera house in 1889, the opera house presented its first donkey. Daniel Boone on the Trail also came to Charlottesville during this year. This show prided itself on including not only horses, but also "8 genuine Shawnee Indians, bucks, squaws and papooses" (note 50).
Plays during this period included Two Sisters, The Stowaway, The Thunderbolt, Robinson Crusoe, and a few others. The small opera house encountered a moderate degree of difficulty during these years to attract the best plays New York had to offer, mainly due to the smaller size of its stage in comparison with other venues. Many of the plays presented gained popularity because of their large, detailed sets, such as the Great Shipwreck Scene in Robinson Crusoe, and were, therefore, difficult for the opera house to accommodate. The glory days of the Levy Opera House were at a close.