|Night at the French Opera:
The Melee that Ended in a Duel
~ ~ ~
Excerpted from "Fabulous New Orleans" by Lyle Saxon, pub. 1928
|Opera House, date unknown
|From Harper's Magazine, "Night at the
French Opera, New Orleans"
|Last curtain call....above, fire destroying the French Opera House;
below, the ruins the next day.
|Article from The Times-Picayune, December 5, 1919:
"Gone, all gone. The curtain has fallen for the last time upon "Les Huguenots," long a
favorite of the New Orleans public. The opera house has gone in a blaze of horror and of
glory. There is a pall over the city; eyes are filled with tears and hearts are heavy. Old
memories, tucked away in the dusty cobwebs of forgotten years, have come out like
ghosts to dance in the last ghastly Walpurgis ballet of flame.
The heart of the old French Quarter has stopped beating."
From perhaps a hundred duels [during the later period, when there is more detail to be obtained], I
choose this one because it seems so typical of New Orleans. It has to do with the French Opera.
Now there is nothing remarkable about a duel growing out of the Opera, for, in fact, many
challenges resulted from nearly every performance. The Creoles were tremendously interested in
music and particularly in the Opera, which furnished pomp and pageantry and drama in addition to
the singing. Music critics had a hard time in New Orleans in those days. An article was printed in
which it was stated that Madam So-and-so was not at her best in "La Vestale" or whatever it
happened to be, and quick as a wink, some admirer of the lady's voice (or of the lady herself) would
challenge the writer. And alas for the poor fellow, if he were not a frequenter of one of those
abodes of the fencing masters in Exchange Alley! For there was no escape. One must either
accept a challenge or leave the city.
In 1857, under Boudousquie's administration of the French Opera, there flourished a fascinating
singer called Mlle. Bourgeois, a contralto. Mlle. Bourgeois had many admirers in New Orleans and
a wide circle of friends. There was another singer, a Mme. Colson, who was "one of the wittiest
and most fascinating of the light soprani," who also had a circle of friends and admirers in New
Orleans that season. The two women were rivals.
The end of the season approached, and as was the custom of the time, benefit performances were
given for the principal singers. Mlle. Bourgeois chose Victor Masse's opera of "Galatee" for her
benefit night. In order to snub Mme. Colson, Mlle. Bourgeois went outside of the company and
chose Mme. Preti-Baille, formerly an opera singer, but at that time a teacher of singing in the city,
to sing [an] important role. The logical choice would have been Mme. Colson, of course.
The announcement created a great furor among the Creoles, for Mme. Colson was much admired.
Immediately the names of the two singers were on every lip. Men and women took sides. Some
declared that Mme. Colson's insult should be avenged, and declared that they would attend the
performance and hiss Mme. Preti-Baille if she dared appear. The friends of Mlle. Bourgeois,
however, declared their loyalty to that singer and stated that they would be present in the theater
and that any interruption in the performance would be properly dealt with.
It was in one of the fencing schools that Emile Bozonier and Gaston de Coppens were lounging,
sipping cordials and watching the other young men fence. A crowd of young Creoles was present
and the discussion turned upon the excitement which the rival opera singers had caused.
Coppens was a great admirer of Mme. Colson and said that he believed that Mme. Preti-Baille
should be hissed from the stage...Bozonier said nothing, but Coppens feeling that his silence
meant disapproval, turned and said:
"What do you say to this, Bozonier?"
And Bozonier, looking full at him, said deliberately and in a resonant tone clearly audible to many
around them: "I think that the man who goes to a theater for the purpose of hissing a woman is a
blackguard and should have his face slapped."
"And do you know," cried Coppens in a fury, "that I am one of those who have declared to hiss
that woman down?"
"No," said Bozonier, "I did not know it, but what I said stands, just the same."
The matter was dropped, and the practice with the foils went on. The young men continued to sip
their wines and cordials.
The benefit night arrived. The Opera House on Orleans Street was crowded to the doors. The
social world had come to Mlle. Bourgeois's benefit; her champions had come and, in addition, her
enemies were there, too. There was an air of suppressed excitement in the theater which made
the audience restless in their chairs. At last the lights were lowered and the director rapped three
times for quiet.
The opera began. The theater was astonishingly still. There was not a rustle, not a cough. Mlle.
Bourgeois, who was singing the role of Pygmalion, appeared and was greeted with generous
applause. She seemed confident and sang unusually well, enjoying her triumph. All went well until
the curtain covering the statue was drawn aside and [the statute of] Galatea began to live and
Immediately, there was bedlam in the heater. There were hisses and catcalls; there were shouts
and cries. Others began to applaud wildly, hoping to drown out the yells of derision. The opera
continued. Mme. Preti-Baille, looking as cold and as white as a statue...continued to sing; the
orchestra continued to play, and the audience continued to shout, to hiss, and to applaud. The
noise went on until the end of the act. Those in the audience could not hear a single note that was
sung. The ladies rose en masse to leave the theater. Some were hysterical; some fainted.
In the crowd in the foyer Bozonier came face to face with Coppens, both men dressed in their
best, both highly excited. Coppens had hissed, Bozonier had seen him, but in the foyer they were
separated by a dense crowd. A few moments later they met on the banquette outside. Coppens
called out: "Well, Bozonier, how about those slaps?"
The answer was a blow which sent Coppens sprawling in the street.
They met under the oaks.
Continued: "Duels in Old New Orleans" describes their duel; link is at bottom of page.