A PRODUCTION of Flotow’s Martha on February 12, 1875, is credited with having been the first opera presented in Dallas with an orchestra. It was given in Field’s Theater, the auditorium and stage of which occupied the second floor of the two-story brick building on the south side in the middle of the block on Main Street between Lamar and Austin. Mrs. Jules D. Roberts is credited with being Dallas’s first Impresaria.
“More removed from traveling musicians than many other Texas cities ( such as Galveston and Houston),” it is explained in the Federal WPA Guide of 1936, “Dallas in its early days had to depend on local talent.” Four years later the noted tenor of a century ago, Tagliapetri, appeared in concert at the Craddock Opera House, a far more pretentious playhouse that stood on Ehn and Market.
But the first concert manager, or impresaria, to emerge in Dallas was the wife of a local businessman, Mrs. Jules D. Roberts. Herself an accomplished musician, a graduate of the Conservatory of Music at Cincinnati, Mrs. Roberts proved to be the pioneering force for more than a decade in promoting the performance of good music in Dallas, the foundation of a discriminating tradition in this field.
In 1895 Mrs. Roberts organized the St. Cecilia Club, the agency which sponsored and presented a notable list of musical artists, most of them of world renown. In its first season the club offered Maurice Aronson, later assistant to Leopold Godowsky in the Chicago musical college. It was financed that season with a forty-cent assessment of each patron, the proceeds used to pay the rent on hall and piano. Among the noted artists brought to Dallas by the club were the woman pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler; opera singers Schumann-Heink, Johanna Gadski, and Melba; the Russian violinist Petschnikoff; Harold Bauer, pianist; composer Edward MacDowell; and Lillian Nordica. This great operatic star insisted upon a guarantee of $2,000 and 25 percent of the gross over that sum. The St. Cecilia Club realized a net profit of $25 on her Dallas appearance.
In 1886, Dallas amateur performers had staged the opera Maritana under the management of the Ladies Aid Society of the First Presbyterian Church, with W. H. Bowyer as director. Emma Abbott brought her opera company to Dallas two years later, giving performances of II Trovatore and Norma in the ballroom of the Hotel Windsor. The French Opera Company in 1898 presented La Juive, which proved a local sensation because it was the first time many Dallas residents had ever seen an opera ballet.
Mrs. Roberts with her St. Cecilia Club brought even more professional opera troupes to Dallas, including the Boston Opera Company, which gave performances of Faust, Iris, and Aida. Traveling companies offered Cavalleria Rusticana, L’Oracolo, and Samson and Delilah, and such religious music as Handel’s Messiah, Verdi’s Requiem, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, and Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass.
In 1902 Paderewski played in the new Fair Park Auditorium and in 1905 the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York gave its first performance in Dallas—Wagner’s Parsifal.
The year before, the 25th Jubilee Texas Saengerfest had been held in Dallas, with Marcella Sembrich as soloist, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a chorus of 1,600. The St. Cecilia Club dissolved in 1906, having expended a total of $29,999 during its eleven years of existence.
Mrs. Roberts continued personally as a concert manager, presenting pianist Rudolph Ganz, Madame Sembrich, and Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony.
By 1913 the sponsorship of opera in Dallas had been shifted to a committee of leading citizens. Its main accomplishment was bringing the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company to Dallas for a “season”—five opera performances, starring the great Mary Garden, with Cleofonte Campanini as musical director. Miss Garden’s first starring role in Dallas was in Massenet’s Thaïs, followed a year or so later by the sensational one-act opera, Salome, in which Miss Garden danced the Dance of the Seven Veils, an exceedingly restrained striptease act which nonetheless shocked the more puritanically minded in the Dallas audience. But the greatest audience hysteria went on during the first visit of the opera company when the famous soprano Luisa Tetrazzini sang the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
In 1914 Dallas saw for the first and only time the world famous dancer Pavlova, who appeared at Fair Park with her own company.
Mrs. Roberts lived to an advanced age, greatly admired by a community that remembered her indefatigable labors for the performing arts in Dallas.
Courtesy Dallas Yesterday by Sam H. Acheson. Photo courtesy grandson, Jules D. Roberts, IV: St. Cecilia Society group in 1899. Mrs. Roberts is center with baton. Her mother is at the piano to right, her typical accompanist and early pioneer piano teacher, Alice O’Neill Bryan.