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Interior view of the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater from the balcony. WHI Image ID 68345
Interior view of the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater from the balcony WHI 68345

A Visual Tour of Wisconsin's Fine Opera Houses

Before the Web, television, radio or even motion pictures, Americans consumed music and drama in their local opera house. Although that phrase might conjure up images of Luciano Pavarotti or Maria Callas, most opera houses hosted all sorts of live theater and community events. In the decades following the Civil War, no self-respecting city or town could do without its own opera house. Many were humble affairs supported by municipal governments or charitable societies, while others were sumptuous palaces built by leading businessmen. Every opera house "proudly celebrated the community's sense of distinction and heralded a sense of civic achievement," says Shullsburg native Brian Leahy Doyle, whose recent book 'Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses' presents detailed portraits of the early history and modern renovation of 10 Wisconsin theaters.

Book Project Yields Large Collection of Opera House Images

Working with architectural photographer Mark Fay of Eau Claire, Doyle assembled richly illustrated accounts of the state's best-known and most-loved opera houses. The book includes a large collection of photographs. Historic photos came from the Wisconsin Historical Society's image collections while restoration groups often provided photos documenting repair and restoration projects. The visual highlights of the book, however, are Fay's many lush photos depicting gleaming interiors, stately exteriors and close-ups of notable details discussed in the text.

During the first third of the 20th century, new forms of entertainment eclipsed opera houses. First, Hollywood studios replaced the velvet curtain with the silver screen, and by mid-century Americans eagerly embraced televisions. Opera houses around the state fell into disuse and disrepair. Over the last 20 years, however, far-sighted preservationists have saved many from oblivion, including the 10 that are lavishly documented in the photos linked below.

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