Haskell Opera House comes alive for another season in Derby Line

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(Host) Now that the weather is warmer and windows are open again, you can often hear music wafting from an ornate landmark in Derby Line.

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House straddles the Canadian border and shines a spotlight on a bygone era.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright recently paid a visit to this one-of-a-kind concert hall.

(Albright) Drive up to the checkpoint between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, and you’ll probably get a stern grilling from a Customs officer. But to take an easier route across the border, walk into the Haskell Public Library, follow a strip of black tape marking the international boundary, and trudge up worn wooden steps to the Opera House. You won’t need to show any ID to the short, friendly guy pointing to the vintage poster beside the ticket window.

(Carragher) “My name is Peter Carragher, and I’m the Haskell Opera House Manager. . . . It’s the ticket office, and we also have posters dating back to the very first performance we had at the opera house in 1904.”

(Albright) It was a minstrel show-a cultural anachronism. But the opera house itself has stood the test of time. The rococo tin ceiling is intact, the huge chandelier still twinkles, the painted curtain lures you into a lushly colored summertime scene of Venice, and scantily clad cherubs still cavort around the balcony-maybe shivering, at times. From October to April, the stage is dark and the heat is off. Carragher says that annual cold storage may be why this architectural gem has outlasted so many others of its era. But managing a relic brings unique challenges-especially at curtain time.

(Carragher) “It’s just as if you were on a sailing ship-a clipper. All the cords are wound around the stakes that hold everything in place and so it takes a bit of knot work and knowing how to attach things. Otherwise performances could be adversely affected if things are not properly secured.”

(Albright) “You could be adversely affected if things are not properly secured.”

(Carragher) “I’d head for Canada.”

(Albright) He’s joking that he would most probably fall onto the stage, which is technically located in Stanstead, Quebec. But about half the leather upholstered wooden seats are in America. So when soprano Christine Cadoux drops by for our interview, she feels most comfortable down front-on Canadian soil. This is the only concert hall in America where she may legally perform, because she doesn’t have a green card.

(Cadoux) “It’s like a jewel. For me it’s like an Italian theater, small, cozy, and with a wonderful sound and we are very-ah-posh.”

(Albright) And she knows "posh." Cadoux was born and musically trained in Paris, so she’s familiar with some of the world’s finest concert halls. To show off Haskell’s acoustics, Cadoux strolls onstage and launches into the "Queen of the Night aria" from Mozart’s "The Magic Flute.

Cadoux often performs her favorite arias here with two other singers, Manuel Blais and Eric Prud’Homme. She summarizes the opera plot lines in French, and Prud’Homme repeats in English.

But they have yet to add their names to the thousands scrawled by performers over the years on backstage walls. The historic graffiti-some scribbled in lipstick– is a stop on the tour that manager Carragher loves to give visitors:

(Carragher) “And this is just one floor. We’re on the second floor, there’s three floors of these signatures in the dressing rooms for the artists and some have fantastic diagrams drawn on there that I can’t describe, some are music instruments, and if we look at some of the years. . . .”

(Albright) And new signatures are still being added. Martha Haskell built the library and opera house to serve both Canadians and Americans and apparently endowed it well enough to keep it open almost continuously since the 1901 groundbreaking. Still ahead this season, in addition to Christine Cadoux’s "opera hits"-Gilbert and Sullivan by the QNEK resident theater company, Banjo Dan and the Midnight Plowboys, and the Vermont Symphony.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright, in Derby Line.


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