He’d arrived in New Orleans in March aboard his showboat, the Ceres, and his was apparently one of the first traveling theatrical companies to visit the Attakapas district later that spring.
According to a study of music in the plantation country by Robert F. Schmaltz, “Unfortunately for Barnum, the parish residents ... didn’t find his troupe as entertaining as Colonel Ames’s ‘New Orleans Menagerie and Circus,’ a perennial favorite which counted among its attractions ‘Signorita Ella Eugenia, the Fairy Lion Queen.’ Barnum’s troupe was forced to disband, exchanging the steamer for sugar and molasses in Opelousas.”
Signorita Eugenia’s charms notwithstanding, it may have been that St. Martinville’s taste were a little more high-brow than what Barnum had to offer. There’s a long-standing story that the town was the first place to hear French opera sung west of the Mississippi River, a story that Schmaltz says may have some truth to it, but not in the way it has been handed down.
The “well-circulated” story of a “French Opera Company” performing in St. Martinville in the 1790s, he says, comes from an account written by George W. Cable in which “two young ladies, upon their arrival in St. Martinville, find themselves introduced to a society which delights in its sumptuous balls and musical theatre. With respect to the latter, we are told that during their stay ... the travelers witnessed a performance of ‘The Barber of Seville.’”
The first difficulty, Schmaltz points out, is the fact that any such performance would have required bringing in musicians from New Orleans, at a time well before New Orleans had such musicians. It is not very likely, he thinks, that St. Martinville had a bevy of opera singers ten years before New Orleans did. Also, he points out that in the 1790s “no building in town . . . [was] capable of housing such a performance.”
Even more compelling, however, is the fact that the popular version of “The Barber of Seville” wasn’t written until 1816, at least twenty years after it was supposed to have been performed here.
The expert says that St. Martinville’s reputation as “petit Paris” was in fact partly because of the development here of an operatic tradition, but that it began decades later than the popular story claims.
“The Barber of Seville” did make its premier U.S. performance in New Orleans about 1830, and there is a good possibility that it was performed here about that time.
In those days when steamboat connections were making travel easier, folks from New Orleans made regular summer visits to St. Martinville and expected (and generally found) the same amenities here that they were used to finding in the bigger city.
The 1941 edition of a W.P.A. Writer’s Program guide to Louisiana, reports, for example, “The reputation of ... ‘Little Paris’ for refinement and cool summers attracted many well-to-do residents of New Orleans. Many of the best Creole families of the state made St. Martinville a fashionable summer resort. The artists of the French Opera and the French theatres in New Orleans also spent their vacations here. Each summer the residents and visitors enjoyed concerts with selections from the best operas and performances of the witty comedies of the French Repertoire.... Some of the theatrical artists married and made their homes there, giving the Little Paris on the Teche the flavor of a colony of musicians and actors both professional and amateur.”
But all of that was well after the 1790s.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.