For one who was raised on heavy doses of opera, and with a great reverence for the heritage, history, and traditions of the American South, Louisiana, and in particular of New Orleans, I do not know how it never registered with me before last week that the first opera house in the United States opened in New Orleans on December 1, 1859, in an impressive neo-Classical structure which stood for exactly sixty years at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) of New Orleans, Louisiana 70112 (http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/arts/operano.html)
The site is now occupied by the Ramada Inn on Bourbon, Ramada being a distinctly “LMC” hotel chain, and this particular Ramada caters to the alcohol-soused and unwashed masses who parade up and down Bourbon Street in a nearly continuous year round nightly ritual re-enactment of the ancient and Mediaeval “Wild Hunt” of Northern, Western and Central Europe.
Opera is, or at least Opera was for about 250-300 years, an elite marker of the very height of European artistic achievement in music and theatre. From the time of Henry Purcell to Giaccomo Puccini, it was the standard to which all other art forms aspired—or which comedians ridiculed as symbolic of what was wrong with the elite (e.g. W.S. Gilbert).
As an art form Opera is now semi-fossilized—for my part I cannot accept the legitimacy of contemporary works such as the “Ghosts of Versailles” or “Nixon in China” as “real” opera, nor do I see these efforts as having much longevity or legitimacy—and so the mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Covent Garden in London remains the repertoire of 18th, 19th, and very early 20th century opera by Mozart, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Verdi, Bizet, and Puccini, with the ten gesamtkunstwerken of Richard Wagner enjoying a perpetual “special status”, the elite of operas even among opera-goers.
Bourbon Street today is….a hedonistic extravaganza of booze and sex at its most vulgar. The gangs there during this Christmas-to-New Years’ Holiday are mostly white, aged 16-40 (I’m definitely one of the older codgers on the scene). The men are dressed moderate casually while the women tend do be casually to-only slightly sexy, better-dressed in a kind of trashy, “party” sense. Young girls are the center of attention. Just as if it were Mardi Gras people stand on balconies and toss beads. And on New Year’s Eve and the night before, the feeling has been very raucous. Across the street from the site of the French Opera House of 1859-1919, the bar opposite the Ramada Inn on Bourbon was playing, at 3:45 am—cranked up to highest volume—”Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. Many operas were in fact really bad romances, but the connection and parallel pretty much ends there. The claim of sex-traders everywhere is that their work is Erotic Art, but Bourbon Street’s domination by the purest pornography is epitomized by the several “Larry Flynt/Hustler/Barely Legal” clubs in a three block stretch. Yankee lumpenproletariats from Portland to Peoria to Pittsburgh, Poughkeepsie, and Providence converge on Bourbon Street attracting just a sufficient number of really attractive girls to make the place an enjoyable walk for people-watching. Southern rednecks of the recovering Southern Baptist variety keep alive the twisted memory of the South with Confederate Battle Flag bandanas, grossly juxtaposed to the large minority of African-American performers and tourists (who come from both the North and South in neither greater or lesser style and “class” than their white counterparts).
In short, Bourbon Street today, and so far as my memory of it goes back (early 1970s), has been a nightmare of the worst of modern thoughtless self-indulgent LMC America. While the small space permits the “Wild Hunt” Ritual—(hunt for beer and flashing….flesh I guess)—in a manner unparalleled anywhere, Bourbon Street’s complete moral corruption at leasts equals Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The drunkenness, debauchery, and generally lecherous is economically parasitic and exploitative in the extreme, but it is cheaper than Las Vegas or Atlantic City. The nature of discounted debauchery reminds me of Richard Blaine’s comment in Casablanca that he had no problem with parasites, what he objected to was a cut rate one.
In short, and my own mild hypocrisy here can only shine forth as clearly as it is true—Bourbon Street offers lowbrow people a lot of genuinely lowbrow fun—at least if you can tolerate a lot of gross behavior framed by beautiful old wrought iron balconies and Spanish, French, and 19th Century American architecture.
Despite Bourbon Street, New Orleans remains one of the cultural centers of the world for at least one very active and vital art form and that is cooking and cuisine. The food of New Orleans is incomparable: Antoine’s, Court of Two Sister’s, Tujague’s, Emeril’s Delmonico and Commander’s Palace are only among the oldest and most recognizable names in restaurants in the United States. At least some of the lumpenproletariats who enjoy Bourbon Street at its worst apparently also can appreciate really good food. ”Oysters Rockefeller” was a dish specially prepared at Antoine’s originally for the richest man in the world, but $12-$18 will get you a dozen and that’s roughly the same as lunch at Denny’s….
But this was the site of the first opera house in the United States, apparently without any dispute (the oldest opera house in continuous operation may well be be the Bardavon 1869 Opera house in, of all places, Poughkeepsie, New York, but it doesn’t save Poughkeepsie from inclusion in the “sources of great unwashed Americans” list above. (see, e.g., http://hauntedneworleanstours.com/frenchoperahouse/).
The real purpose of this essay is to ask a single question: what caused the transformation of the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse from one of the centers of elite-European culture in the Americas, in 1859, to something akin to the sewer of the American soul in 2010?
My answer is that the transformation was wrought by the War of 1861-1865, known to partisans of the winning side as the “American Civil War” (although there are no analogies whatsoever to the English Civil War of the Roundheads vs. Cavaliers, aside from the explicit stylistic comparisons of the two sides), and to traditional partisans of the losing side as “the War Between the States.” Just technically, I think the “War Between the States” is more historically descriptive of what happened, and also of the Constitutional Consequences which followed, which were of the triumph of the National Federal government over the individual states.
What was the real purpose of this War of 1861-1865? Up to a point I think the purpose, as well as the result, as precisely the transformation of Bourbon Street. New Orleans in 1860 was poised to become one of the great cultural centers of the world, comparable to Paris or Vienna in every sense, including the existence of an hereditary aristocracy.
As the opening bars of Gone with the Wind play, the textual narrative Title Reads: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
The puritans of the North could not tolerate a peaceful co-existence with the civilization they saw emerging in the deep Southern States, from at least New Orleans to Charleston, South Carolina. They were envious, and I remain of the opinion that the war of 1861-1865 was the single most direct and enduring American outgrowths of the transformations of public consciousness engendered by the publication of Marx & Engels “Communist Manifesto” in 1848.
The principal demands of the Manifesto have all been met although some are only now in our time being perfected. As accurately summarized in Wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Communist_Manifesto) the Manifesto Demanded:
- Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
- A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
- Abolition of all right of inheritance.
- Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
- Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
- Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
- Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
- Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
- Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.
- Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production.
To a greater-or-lesser degree, we live in the world shaped and created by the Communist Manifesto. The American South, in particular New Orleans, reflected a completely alternative path in which private property, inheritance, and decentralized credit would have dominated.
The final abolition of private property and inheritance in America is now taking place with governmental support in the current mortgage foreclosure crisis. It is against that national policy of finally implementing the first demand of the communist manifesto that I have dedicated my life.
I have spent the Christmas and New Years’ Holiday in New Orleans this year at an historic hotel one half-block “Lakeside” of Bourbon Street (driving directions in New Orleans, a crescent-shaped city which curves along a major bend in the Mississippi River are traditionally not given as “north-south-east-west” but as “Riverside, Lakeside, Uptown and Downtown” with the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, Audubon Park-Tulane University, and the French Quarter and/or Faubourg Marigny beyond Esplanade as the defining “cardinal points” of the city). I love New Orleans—I love the humid air, the sensuous (Francophile?) appreciation of life, and the beauty and unique style of the old quarter. But I hate what Americans have done with Bourbon Street. I hate the class-flattening approach to sex and booze and money.
I now know also that what I love most in music was born in America on Bourbon Street, which now resounds with the trashiest of the trashy repertoires of degenerate popular music. Even real Jazz, the only completely home-grown, indigenous “American” musical genre, is rarely heard above the din on Bourbon Street, which is ironic because, in 1919 when the original French Opera House burned, Jazz was being born on Bourbon Street and its French-Quarter environs, soon to explode into the American mainstream during the “roaring 20s”.
George Washington died in 1799. According to the sources cited, the first performance of an opera in the Americas took place in New Orleans two years before that. Sixty years later, the French Opera House was erected in New Orleans, destined to last exactly 60 years. 1859 was the end of an amazing decade in history unlike any other when (as Jacques Barzun pointed out in his marvelous historical essay “Darwin, Marx, and Wagner“ published in 1941 and in print ever since) the concepts of history, evolution, economics, and art were rapidly being transformed. 1919 was the year of the treaty of Versailles after World War I. These 60 years in which the New Orleans Opera house stood at Bourbon and Toulouse were the years in which Marx’ ideas took the world in one direction while Wagner’s ideas took the world in the completely opposite direction, with Darwin planted squarely in the middle. I was originally due to graduate Tulane University sixty years later in 1979 (but because I took off a year to work in Honduras at the ancient Maya ruins of Copan, I ended up graduating in 1980). Those sixty years (1919-1979) saw the final eradication of all vestiges of the Old South which had survived the war, and the transformation of Bourbon Street into the Sex and Booze pot it is today.
As astounding as it seems to me, more than 30 years (half another cycle of 60 years) have now passed since my graduation from college, and to the degree that there is any change, it is only in the further degradation of Bourbon Street by the invasion of Larry Flynt and Hustler into the “Brave New World” mentality of modern America—Pornography and trumped Eros, classless communism has all-but-completely replaced stratification based on education and cultural awareness, and private property is now all-but-a-thing of the past.