Who wrote the first opera in the United States?

The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton.

In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera:

“The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American Theatre, and, the consequence was . . . a considerable stirring up of curiosity. The name of Cioffi, in connection with the affair, was alone sufficient to give it respectability, and ensure for its proper consideration. . . .”

Felippe Cioffi was best known as an excellent trombonist. Apparently Italian born but educated and trained in this country, he had many years experience playing in theater orchestras. He was also a military band master, composer of marches, and winner of a local contest for the best arrangements of American patriotic melodies.

The article goes on to say that Andre “afforded satisfaction” for two performances. Then it disappeared from sight. Fry, an experienced and well-rounded composer, undoubtedly wrote a better opera. Cioffi produced his more than a year earlier.


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