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.



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
Preservation Alliance Launches

Preservation Alliance Launches “Places To Save” List

October 20, 2014  |  Buzz

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia reboots their annual "Endangered Properties" list with new "Places to Save" announcements > more

Bless Our Beer Gardens, Past and Present

Bless Our Beer Gardens, Past and Present

October 20, 2014  |  Behind the Facade

Drinking al fresco reached new heights this summer as brilliantly designed beer gardens popped up all over the city. This isn't anything new though, says Nic Esposito. Philadelphia has been publicly drunk since 1671 > more

Old City Orange Façade To Be Preserved

Old City Orange Façade To Be Preserved

October 20, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Historical Commission okays Old City development, the emblematic stairway at the Barnes, Blatstein serious yet anxious about The Provence, 10 homes for NoLibs, and a salvaged cornice delights in Fishtown > more

The Tombstone Wall Of Society Hill

The Tombstone Wall Of Society Hill

October 17, 2014  |  Vantage

With October at hand and Halloween on the way, we thought a series on historic cemeteries was most appropriate. Our first story presents the strange tale of thirty tombstones that sit embedded in the back wall of the Presbyterian Historical Society > more

Existential Tug-Of-War Along West Cecil B. Moore Avenue

Existential Tug-Of-War Along West Cecil B. Moore Avenue

October 17, 2014  |  Morning Blend

The identity crisis of TempleTown, Family Court opens, artist space coming to Grays Ferry, mixed-use for Ridge, inside the Bok storage facility, and PhillyU collects $60M > more

Improvements Possible For The Schuylkill Boardwalk

Improvements Possible For The Schuylkill Boardwalk

October 16, 2014  |  Morning Blend

How to upgrade the successful trail extension, Temple investing in its athletic programs once more, developer slowly selling houses in Somertown, and lackluster restriping plans for Washington Avenue > more