All the standard reference works will tell you that the first opera by an American composer was Leonora by William Henry Fry. It ran for 12 performances in Philadelphia in 1845. Fry considered that a respectable enough run that he had the piano-vocal score published. Other publishers issued various excerpts over the next seven years. Fry had his opera performed in New York in 1858, but apparently with less success.
New York has been the cultural capital of the United States for so long that it’s easy to assume that it always has been. By 1845, it had barely begun its ascendancy. It still did not have a financially successful opera company. New Orleans, on the other hand, had a rich operatic heritage and supported not one, but three opera theaters.
In November 1843, Daily Picayune of New Orleans ran a short, rather cryptic article about the premiere of a new opera at the American Theatre. The newspaper considered it worth mentioning because the composer was an American. It appears that Filippo Cioffi, a local trombonist and bandmaster, had written an opera called André, and the American Theatre, in whose orchestra Cioffi played at the time, performed it twice, to general satisfaction. Unless another local newspaper also wrote about it, that’s all there is to know about it. Fire destroyed the theater, its costumes, sets, and music library a few years later, and Cioffi himself had moved to London.
Surely Fry was a better composer than Cioffi. Presumably, although not necessarily, Leonora was a better opera than André. That does not change the fact that Cioffi wrote and produced the first American opera–a year and a half earlier than Fry.
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