Opera had a home in Washington

Published 4:24 pm Monday, April 5, 2021

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My friend and BoCo Town podcast co-host Steve Barnes will have the unique pleasure of interviewing two singers who are studying at East Carolina University. They will perform at the Historic Turnage Theater in a few weeks. I’m looking forward to it as I’m seeking to increase my knowledge of opera.

The first opera I learned about was actually a grade school assignment. My fourth grade teacher Miss Foreman who sang opera, introduced the class to an NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of Ahmal and the Night Visitors. It was shown every year around Christmas.

Miss Foreman had us watch it and write a report.  I did but I turned the summary from the T.V. Guide for my report. That was not a good idea according to Miss Foreman.

It was about (as best I can remember) a handicapped boy who lived with his impoverished mother and could only walk with a crutch. The Three Kings visited them looking for the Baby Jesus. The child goes with the Kings and when he finds the Baby Jesus, gives him his crutch as a gift because he has nothing else to give. Then the boy is miraculously healed.

The only other opera I knew about as a child was the opera singers on the Ed Sullivan Show.

As an adult, I liked were Porgy and Bess and the world renowned African- American opera singer Jessye Norman’s in her role in Blue Beard’s Castle.

Now, many decades after I was in school, I find it fascinating that Washington had two opera houses.

The first and best known was Brown’s Opera House on the southeast corner of Main and Market Streets. Built around 1884, it was a showplace for Opera companies and was on the second floor of the building.

It had 1,000 seats and also hosted other types of musical performances, school graduations and famous speakers such as Dr. Booker T. Washington. It was converted into office buildings in 1911.

The second one was on the northeast corner of Market and Third Streets.  Built in 1912 by R. T. Hodges, the building was known as The Hassell Supply Company. The Opera House was on the second floor and had a 1,000 seat auditorium, dressing rooms, stage and balcony.  When this building was erected, it was the largest building per square foot in Washington. The Opera House was used until around 1921, then became the Smith Shirt Factory Complex where the Washington Daily News is located today, historically listed as The M. (Mason) A. Smith Shirt Factory Building.

Operas were also one of the featured attractions at The New Theater which was a Vaudeville theater on the third floor of the current Turnage Theater. Washington became known as a town where opera thrived. That’s pretty cool for a small town.


Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the Co-Executive Director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.