A Brief History
Chance. Fate. Love. Death. In many ways the history of Opera House is as dramatic as any play.
Opera House has always been intimately connected with Thalian Hall, was named after the theatre, and owes its creation to an event at the theatre. In 1983 Lou Criscuolo, a professional actor, was hired to perform the role of “Joseph Jefferson” in the 125th anniversary show for Thalian Hall. He fell in love with the beautiful theatre, with the charm of Wilmington, and with Mary James Morgan, who worked at the Hall.
He returned to Wilmington in the summer of 1984 and directed a production of Man of La Mancha, a show he knew well from performing it for many years on tour and on Broadway. The show was very well received, and Lou decided Wilmington was ready for a professional theatre company.
In the spring of 1985 Lou and Mary James created Opera House Productions. They were a perfect team; Lou brought his many years of theatrical experience and know-how, and Mary James brought her Wilmington connections and marketing skills. On March 7, 1985, they opened their first production, Cactus Flower, starring Joe Namath and his wife, Deborah Mays. Lou couldn’t direct, however, since he was busy performing on Broadway in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Instead, he commuted back and forth to oversee the production, flying in on Sundays after the matinee and flying out on Tuesdays for that evening’s performance. Once Ma Rainey closed, he moved to Wilmington permanently.
Opera House Productions became Opera House Theatre Company in the early 90s, so that the name more accurately reflected our mission – producing the best theatre possible.
From the beginning Opera House’s main focus has been summer musicals. When Opera House began in 1985, local theatre companies shut down for the summer, but Lou and Mary James quickly realized that summer theatre could be a big draw in a tourist town like Wilmington. And although Opera House has produced and continues to produce a wide range of theatre and events throughout the year, musicals have always been our specialty. Our current schedule is comprised of a musical in February and four musicals back to back in the summer.
Opera House has always been a family business. Both Mary James’s and Lou’s children have been involved over the years, but the Opera House family is much larger than blood ties. Most of our directors, performers, musicians, and technicians have been involved with Opera House for five, ten, fifteen, and even twenty years; many work exclusively for Opera House. Lifelong friendships have been formed, and at least four married couples met during an Opera House show. We have also been blessed with an extremely loyal audience. Our members support us year after year and make each season possible.
Theatre is all about change; nothing about a production is permanent except the memories. The hardest change to accept, however, is death, and over the years Opera House has lost many of its most beloved family members. The biggest changes of all came almost fifteen years apart - on April 4, 2000, when Mary James died and on December 14, 2014 when Lou died.
Although it is painful, Opera House has moved into the future – as everyone must. Opera House is now in the next act of its life, as I step into the role of artistic director. My name is Alice Sherwood, and for thirty+ years I have been lucky enough to come to work every day with the people I love the most in the world. I am proud to carry on the legacy of my mother and stepfather. They can never be replaced, and their absence will always be felt, but Opera House will go on in their memory and in their honor.
In 2015, Opera House was very excited to celebrate our 30th anniversary, an amazing milestone. Opera House’s next 30 years will undoubtedly be as full of life, love, and excitement as the first 30 have been. Wilmington will continue to change and grow, and Opera House will change and grow with it. The one constant for Opera House – through the past and into the future – is putting all of our energy, all of our heart, and all of the incredible talent in Wilmington into every show we produce. There is no other way to produce great theatre, and producing great theatre is our mission.
Above: Lou Criscuolo and Mary James Morgan Criscuolo. Not the best version of this photo, but it is too good to omit.