Something New In America: Serious Opera, 1757

Artist’s rendition of original University of Pennsylvania buildings

In winter, 1757, around the same time of the city’s first public concert, students at the College of Philadelphia–to become the University of Pennsylvania–performed the first “serious” work of opera in America.

The College at this time was housed in a large building at the southwest corner of 4th and Arch Streets. The building had been constructed in 1740 as a church for the followers of noted Evangelist George Whitefield. In 1750 it was purchased by the Trustees of the Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia, a group founded by Benjamin Franklin to establish an institution of higher learning and a school for the poor in the city. Classes began in 1751 under the direction of Provost William Smith. In 1755 the institution became the College of Philadelphia and then later the University of Pennsylvania.

Smith’s curriculum included training in oratory. As part of this training, the College presented dramatic vocal productions designed to serve as “oratorical exercises” for the students. The first of these productions was offered to the public over several nights in late January and early February 1757, 255 years ago. The performance featured Smith’s adaptation of the vocal work the Masque of Alfred by English composer Thomas Arne.

Francis Hopkinson

The masque was a form of English court entertainment that was a precursor to serious opera. The most popular form of musical theater in America at that time was the ballad opera, which, despite its name, was not opera as we know it today, but a lighthearted entertainment that was essentially a play with inserted songs. The “Masque of Alfred” as presented by the College of Philadelphia students in early 1757 was something different, something new in America: a dramatic production that integrated acting, music, scenery, and costumes. As such it was the first American presentation of a “serious” opera.

One of the participating musicians was a young student at the College, Francis Hopkinson, who probably also composed some music for the production. Hopkinson was part of the first graduating class of the College in 1757 and would go on to become a trustee of the College as well as one of our nation’s Founding Fathers and a Signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was also America’s first native-born poet-composer and a key figure in Philadelphia’s musical life in the late eighteenth century.

A newspaper review of the “Masque of Alfred” performance noted,
With Regard to the young Gentlemen who so lately entertained the Town with this Performance, the Applause they met with, from Crowded and Discerning Audiences, during the several Nights of its Representation, is the best proof of their Merit … to see a number of young proficients in music and oratory, capable of presenting to advantage, in all the complexity of its parts, so difficult and beautiful a performance as that of Alfred, would be an honor to the taste and improvement of any country.

The University of Pennsylvania grew and expanded and eventually moved to 9th and Chestnut Streets and then to its present location in West Philadelphia. Its original 4th and Arch Street site is now occupied by a Holiday Inn. Adjoining the Holiday Inn to the west is Christ Church Burial Ground, where both Francis Hopkinson and Benjamin Franklin lie in repose, just yards from the original home of the University in which they played a prominent role and which gave America its first opera performance.

About the author

Jack McCarthy is a certified archivist and longtime Philadelphia area archival/historical consultant. He is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical institutions. He recently concluded work as consulting archivist and researcher for Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio, an audio documentary on the history of Philadelphia Black radio, and served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2012-2013 Leopold Stokowski centennial celebration. Jack has a master’s degree in music history from West Chester University and is particularly interested in the history of Philadelphia music. He is also involved in Northeast Philadelphia history. He is co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, founding director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame, and president of Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History.

Send a message!



3 Comments


  1. Interstingly, at the same time this was happening, the first public concert in Philadelphia occurred in the Assembly Room on Lodge Alley (near Second and Chestnut (or Walnut) Streets) under the direction of a John Palma. The fist such concert was on January 25, 1757; the second was on March 17. This appears to be the first known chamber music subscription series in the colonies, as well as the first known public concert in America). Among those who attended the second concert was a young colonel named George Washington. Tickets cost a dollar. Unfortunately, no programs survive of these momentous shows.

Recent Posts
In Search Of The Source

In Search Of The Source

November 26, 2014  |  Vantage

As gorgeous a landscape as the Wissahickon Creek carves through Philadelphia, it couldn't possibly begin its journey to the Schuylkill as an inlet from a shopping mall parking lot. Could it? Brad Maule heads to the suburbs to find out > more

Moshulu Renovation Aims For A More Authentic Design

Moshulu Renovation Aims For A More Authentic Design

November 26, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Barque owner getting design-inspiration from Ralph Lauren, Orinoka Mills a go, holiday display tells of South Philly’s days as a celebrity hotspot, and new work rules really are improving Convention Center’s future prospects > more

Philly Still On The 2016 DNC Short List

Philly Still On The 2016 DNC Short List

November 25, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Philly included in the three prospective DNC cities, planning money for Fox Chase trail, apartment complex changes hands amid redevelopment, and East Falls residents debate where to put a dog park > more

The Gilded Mall Of Market Street: Gimbels Had It

The Gilded Mall Of Market Street: Gimbels Had It

November 24, 2014  |  Vantage

Where the great Gimbels department store once stood a parking lot sits today. With the recent rejection of a casino license for the site, it looks like it may stay that way for now. Shadowbat has the story behind this long gone, cherished Philadelphia institution and the development black hole that is left in its place at 8th and Market > more

On Improving Urban-Suburban Relations

On Improving Urban-Suburban Relations

November 24, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Giving thanks for living in a great Greater Philadelphia, developer promises a catalyst for renewal of one South Philly neighborhood, Waverly Court units to double, and a warehouse-to-residential > more

We Haven't Forgotten: Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade Was The First

We Haven’t Forgotten: Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade Was The First

November 24, 2014  |  Vantage

Another first Philadelphia can claim is inventing the Thanksgiving Day parade. Gimbels department store started it all in 1920. Kyrie Greenberg gives us the backstory on this iconic public celebration > more