“Ye Grand Ducal Ball at the Academy of Music”

December 16, 1871

Thomas Worth

“Ye Grand Ducal Ball at the Academy of Music”

Arts and Entertainment; New York City, Celebrations/Honors; U.S. Tours by Foreign Dignitaries;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City; Russia;

No caption.

This comic mosaic conveys the anticipation, crowding, and confusion relating to the ball honoring Alexis, the visiting Grand Duke of Russia, held at the Academy of Music in New York City.  For over 30 years, the Academy of Music was the city’s principal venue for opera and important celebratory events, like the Grand Ducal Ball, as well as a popular site for meetings and a variety of public entertainment.  Besides welcoming the Russian duke, the Academy of Music was the place for the city’s formal reception of the Prince of Wales in 1860 and the Russian fleet in 1863.  The Academy of Music’s diverse offerings over the years included performances of the New York Philharmonic, an exhibition of the Chicago Zouaves (a militia) in 1860 and a troupe of Japanese acrobats in 1867, balls for the military and the city’s firemen, charity balls and festivals, a children’s carnival, magic shows, religious conferences and an ecumenical Protestant worship service on Sunday nights, political meetings and speeches (including Governor Horatio Seymour’s anti-draft oration on July 4, 1863), and historical commemorations. 

Before the Academy of Music, New York City had difficulty supporting an opera house.  The costly expense of opera companies and public criticism of Italian opera as foreign and aristocratic led all of the previous ventures to fail.  The Astor Place Opera House lasted only five years, suffering the stigma of a major riot on its premises in 1849, before closing in 1852.  Opera-lovers in New York were determined to try again, and the musical culture of the city in the 1850s was enhanced by an influx of German immigrants for whom music was an integral part of life. 

Francis Cutting and Moses Grinnell headed a group of wealthy New Yorkers who wanted to build another opera house.  In 1853, during a period of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, the men convinced the state legislature to grant them a corporation charter establishing a music academy for fostering American musicianship through music instruction, encouraging American musical composition through prizes, and cultivating American musical taste through opera and concerts.  However, in its 34-year existence, the Academy of Music never opened a school of music, and continued to rely upon Italian opera as its mainstay of entertainment.

Construction of the Academy of Music at 14th Street and Irving Place, near the affluent Union Square neighborhood, was completed in 1854.  It was built by architect Alexander Saeltzer, a German immigrant who had previously designed the Astor Library (1849).  With 4600 seats, it was the largest opera house in the world at the time, and featured several innovations, including plush red seats with a mechanism causing them to spring upright when unoccupied; a ventilation system for circulating air; rooftop water reservoirs and a primitive sprinkler system for fire safety; and illumination from 400 gas chandeliers inside and 500 lights around the outside dome.  Nevertheless, there were still complaints about poor ventilation and uneven lighting, and the building was gutted by fire in 1866.  However, the major problem with the design was its long, narrow horseshoe shape (copied from Italian opera houses), which obscured the view of a high proportion of the seats, giving many ticket-holders only an aural experience (it was generally agreed that the acoustics were superb).

Theater manager James Hackett signed a lucrative contract with two world-famous singers, Giulia Grisi and Giovanni Mario, to appear at the first concert at the Academy of Music on October 2, 1854.  The extremely high price of the tickets resulted in numerous empty seats (more than 650 of the 700 second-tier seats were unfilled) and a disappointing opening for the new opera house.  In response to criticisms, the Academy’s management remodeled the theater for better visibility and experimented with different pricing methods.  The Academy inaugurated “cheap night” and Saturday matinees, both of which excluded season-ticket reservations.  The third tier, which was infamous in theaters as the place where men met prostitutes, was designated the “family circle” at the Academy, and adult ticket-holders were encouraged to bring their children to performances.  However, the masked balls that began after the Civil War increasingly came under scrutiny for being little more than drunken revels that facilitated promiscuity.

The impresario responsible for the Academy’s first marketing success was Bernard “Napoleon” Ullman.  After signing Marietta Piccolomini, a young star of the London opera, for the fall 1858 season, Ullman created great demand for her performances by column-long advertisements announcing reasonably-priced seats with “A FULL VIEW OF THE STAGE” and creating the impression that her performances would be limited to 12 in the evening and one matinee.  She actually gave 19 evening performances, four matinees, and two shows in Brooklyn, all of which were crowded.  When newspapers complained of scalpers selling tickets at exorbitant prices, Ullman auctioned off tickets for the first performance of Don Giovanni, with the proceeds going to charity.  The press coverage of the controversy was free publicity that increased public awareness of the Academy’s program.  Ullman succeeded in the long run, though, because he offered a quality product in the casts, orchestra, sets, and costumes.

A fire destroyed the auditorium in 1866, but the renovated Academy of Music reopened in early March 1867 with its annual ball for the city’s firemen.  It continued through the 1870s offering many of the same operas that it had for the past twenty years or so, but some thought those productions were looking increasingly worn-out.  A revival began when James Henry Mapleson became the impresario in 1877 and brought over a touring company of English opera stars who generated a great deal of excitement.  However, the Academy was so popular with the city’s social elite that there were not enough reserved boxes to meet demand.  After a meeting in 1880 with some of the disgruntled wealthy who could not get seats, the Academy management promised to add 26 new boxes.  Unsatisfied, a group including Astors, Morgans, Roosevelts, and Vanderbilts established the Metropolitan Opera and Realty Company.  The opening of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883 was a deathblow to the Academy of Music.  It struggled on for a few more years before closing in 1886.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Ye Grand Ducal Ball at the Academy of Music”
April 19, 2024

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