NEW ORLEANS >> Love, hate and hot sauce are themes of a 19th-century comic opera being produced this week as a kickoff to New Orleans’ 300th anniversary. It’s also the 150th anniversary for Tabasco sauce and the New Orleans Opera’s 75th.
“Tabasco: a Burlesque Opera” had been stuck in an attic for more than a century when conductor Paul Mauffray found a program from its 1894 tour in archives for the opera company and its predecessors.
“At first I thought it couldn’t be Tabasco — that Tabasco hadn’t been around that long,” Mauffray said. But an official history of McIlhenny Co ., which makes the sauce, showed that Tabasco predated the opera by 26 years, and that McIlhenny had sponsored the original tour.
The Tabasco-making company underwrote the sold-out production running Thursday to Sunday.
Composer George Whitefield Chadwick was well known in his day, Mauffray said, and if “Tabasco” had its due, “it would be the founding cornerstone of our American history in the opera. It was not just some little show that was done here once. It was the most popular American opera from the pre-20th century.”
Opera has been a big part of New Orleans’ social and musical scene going back to the late 1700s. Mauffray was trying to learn more of its history when he found the program in a box in 2009.
This opera might be rooted in the comical genre that brought fame to the British duo Gilbert and Sullivan.
Chadwick attended a music conservatory in Leipzig, Germany, a decade after W.S. Gilbert, and probably studied under some of the same masters, Mauffray said. Chadwick was commissioned to write the Tabasco opera in 1893 by a corps of well-to-do Army cadets in Boston. The cadets performed it in January 1894 as a fundraiser, winning critical notice for the shapely, clean-shaven legs of the young men acting women’s parts.
It went on to more than 40 professional performances in New York. “This time, the reviewers said it sounded so much better when the women’s parts were sung by women,” Mauffray said.
About the same time, the great Antonin Dvorak, then director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York, presented Chadwick with a national composition prize for one of his symphonies.
Impresario Thomas Q. Seabrook acquired touring rights for “Tabasco” and asked McIlhenny’s permission to use its trademark. John Avery McIlhenny, eldest son of the hot sauce’s creator, agreed, and provided free samples for the audience.
“As far as I know, that’s the earliest we gave out miniature bottles,” company historian Shane Bernard said.
“We’re still making those minis today,” company president and CEO Tony Simmons said. “I think we did about 30 million of them in 2017.”
The show played in at least 48 cities, from Dallas to Rhode Island, when Chadwick realized he wasn’t getting royalties, Mauffray said.
Chadwick had Seabrook arrested and took back his music. When asked about a revival in the early 1900s, Chadwick — who had a composition then being performed by the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler — declined, writing that comic opera was no longer his style, according to Mauffray.
Mauffray tried for years to locate the opera. In 2012, he got access to a box that Chadwick’s descendants were sending to be archived. He found instrumental parts and three different scripts. Reconstruction took “a lot of detective work and piecework and bits and pieces had to be rewritten,” Mauffray said.
The show is directed by Pacific Opera Project director Josh Shaw, who’s known for reimagining Mozart’s “Escape from the Seraglio” as a “Star Trek” episode and for Puccini’s “La Boheme: AKA ‘The Hipsters.’”
The opera’s wacky plot involves traders, a harem girl named Fatima and her older counterpart Hasbeena, a sultan obsessed with spicy food, and Dennis O’Grady, a drunk who impersonates a French chef. A bottle of Tabasco saves O’Grady’s life, trader Marco falls for Fatima, and trader Lola for O’Grady. There’s also a boatload of dancing girls and a plot to assassinate the sultan by putting a bomb in a fancy chest he believes to hold Tabasco.
The plot may seem outlandish to modern audiences, but a souvenir some spectators will get at the show has withstood the test of time: mini bottles of Tabasco.