Bourbon Street — where Dixieland jazz competes with karaoke bars, rock 'n' roll cover bands and strip club jukeboxes — is also one of the first places in America where opera was heard.
Now, it's being heard there again, with a New Orleans-style twist.
Performances take place in a hotel lounge called the Puccini Bar, named for the composer of "Madama Butterfly." And spectators sip cocktails while listening to the free, informal shows, which include arias from "La Boheme" and "Carmen."
The lounge is located at The Inn on Bourbon, a hotel built on the site of the French Opera House. The opera house opened in the mid-1800s and was one of the grandest theaters in New Orleans until it burned to the ground in 1919.
"We're bringing opera back to Bourbon Street," said Beth Ables, general manager of the Inn, which offers a typical study in French Quarter contrasts: As elegant as any of the nearby art galleries or antique shops, it sits near a row of strip clubs and across the street from a huge sign advertising "3-for-1" drink specials.
The French Opera House was part of a bustling theater district in the French Quarter that started in the late 1700s and lasted through the early part of the 20th century. The city's first opera on record was Andre Ernest Gretry's "Sylvain" at the Theatre St. Pierre in the French Quarter in 1796.
While a century ago men in tuxedos and ladies in gowns would have arrived for the opera by horse-drawn carriage, today passers-by meander into The Inn's street-level lounge in casual attire — even shorts and T-shirts — to hear opera. Ables said she even plans to have loudspeakers broadcast some of the performances out onto the street.
Some performances are organized by a trio of singers known as Bon Operatit! Other performances are staged with help from the New Orleans Opera Association as part of its "Opera on Tap" series, which offers performances at other bars and lounges around the city.
Robert Lyall, general and artistic director for the New Orleans Opera Association, which also stages full-scale operas, said the informal performances are a great way to reach people who would not otherwise attend an opera.
"The idea is that people have this incidental encounter with opera, lowering the barrier for them to resist the classical arts," Lyall said. "If they come away with nothing more than the realization that opera music is inviting and that it has an emotional impression even in an informal setting, then we have fulfilled a wonderful mission."
Opera performances at the Inn on Bourbon are scheduled monthly through August, though Ables said she hopes to make them a permanent fixture at the hotel.
The first show was held Sept. 24, and the next one is slated for Oct. 10. Accompanied by a pianist, singers belted songs from "La Boheme," "Carmen" and "The Valkyrie" as on-lookers — some who just strolled in off of Bourbon Street — sipped cocktails and wine.
Dana Stromberg of Ardmore, Okla., was vacationing in New Orleans Wednesday when she stumbled upon the opera performance on her way to dinner with her husband. Stromberg, 58, who was staying at the Inn on Bourbon, said it was her first encounter with live opera.
"It was very exciting, and for me, it was more entertaining than the other stuff out there on Bourbon Street," said Stromberg, who watched the opera performance wearing crop pants and a T-shirt. "I thought it was wonderful."
Lauren Mouney Gisclair, one of the Bon Operatit! performers, said she felt "so honored to be singing here. It's amazing to me that 150 years ago, U.S. premieres of major operas were held right here. It's cool that the history of this place is coming alive again."
The French Opera House opened to the public 150 years ago, on Dec. 1, 1859. The spot in front of the old building where Bourbon Street widened to accommodate carriages dropping off opera patrons is still there. After the fire, the site near the intersection of Toulouse Street was home to a lumber yard, a parking lot and, eventually, a hotel.
The Inn on Bourbon, in operation since 1965, has pictures of the old French Opera House displayed in one hallway. Conference rooms have names like "Otello" and "Carmen."
"The French Opera House was not a small community theater," Lyall said. "It had orchestra seating and four horseshoe-shaped balconies. It sat thousands. Major works were presented there, something you would have seen on the stage in Paris or Vienna."
Besides opera, the theater hosted various other performing arts, including plays and musicals, and became a popular gathering place for Creole society aristocrats, for hosting Carnival balls and political events.
An exhibit of French Opera House artifacts on loan from the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center in the French Quarter, will be displayed in the hotel Nov. 13-22, but the exhibit can be seen any other time at the HNOC building just around the corner from the hotel.