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Long-Forgotten Opera About Tabasco Sauce Heats Up Stage Again After Almost 125 Years

Thanks to some musical sleuthing, George W. Chadwick’s ode to the now ubiquitous hot sauce brand has been revitalized by the New Orleans Opera

Cover art for sheet music from the original Tabasco opera, 1894. (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)
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Back in 1894, a traveling comic opera drew crowds to theaters across America. They came to listen to witty lyrics and catchy tunes about... Tabasco. Yes, the ubiquitous peppery hot sauce brand. Called the “Burlesque Opera of Tabasco,” the show quickly became an overnight sensation (it did, after all, feature a giant papier-mâché Tabasco bottle and the verse "Turn out the town, boys drink it down, hail to the Peer of Tabasco”). Due to alleged conflicts between composer George W. Chadwick and producer Thomas Q. Seabrooke, however, after the opera's initial run, it faded into obscurity and was largely forgetten about—until now.

Tonight, the New Orleans Opera will revive the 124-year-old production for the first time in over a century as part of its 75th-anniversary season. Called “George W. Chadwick’s Tabasco: A Burlesque Opera,” the already sold-out production runs through January 28 at the La Petit Théâtre de Vieux Carré in New Orleans. The tongue-in-cheek burlesque opera promises to bring Chadwick’s artistic vision back to life with a full orchestra, chorus and cast of characters, including the protagonist, a hot-tempered grand Pasha, who threatens his personal chef after taking a bite of his dinner only to find it boring and bland. (A blind beggar quickly remedies the chef’s faux pas by selling him a mysterious liquid that turns out to be Tabasco sauce.)

The show's revival is thanks to the work of Paul Mauffray, a sleuthing Louisiana-born conductor. As Theodore P. Mahne reports for NOLA.com, Mauffray had been digging into the history of New Orleans opera when he came across a playbill for the show. Tantilized by the story, he embarked on a painstaking hunt to reconstruct the opera, using the bits and pieces of it that remained, along with newly discovered handwritten notes on the orchestral parts.

"Tabasco: A Burlesque Opera"'s debut comes during a big year for the Big Easy, which is celebrating its tricentennial in 2018, and the beloved hot sauce brand, as well, which was first made in Louisiana after the Civil War by a businessman named Edmund McIlhenny 150 years ago.

Interestingly, McIlhenny's company had no involvement in the original making of the opera. In fact, Shane Bernard, the McIlhenny Company’s historian, says that a group of military cadets commissioned the production as a way to raise money to help build a new armory in Boston, and they ended up pulling out all the stops.

“These well-to-do cadets hired an actual composer and librettist to create the show,” says Bernard. “We don’t know how they came up with the idea, but what it does tell us is that by 1894 Tabasco must have been a household word, otherwise it wouldn’t have made sense to everybody and the opera would have needed an explanation, but clearly it didn’t.”

A woman is imperiled in a scene from the original Tabasco opera production, 1894. (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)
Tabasco opera promotional sheet music cover, given out freely to readers of the Boston Sunday Post, 1894. (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)
A street organ scene from the original Tabasco opera production, 1894. (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)
Cover art for sheet music from the original Tabasco opera, 1894. (Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)
(Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)
(Courtesy McIlhenny Company Archives)

Witnessing its success, the show approached John Avery McIllheny, son of late Tabasco inventor Edmund McIllheny who then helmed the company, to get permission to continue doing the opera as a traveling production. With the caveat that mini bottles of the sauce be distributed to audience members during each performance, McIllheny gave the show his blessing. 

“This was the first time that the company produced mini bottles to look like the standard bottles of Tabasco,” Bernard says. Today, these ubiquitous bottles account for nearly half of the brand’s total annual sales. 

While “Tabasco: A Burlesque Opera” may be sold out, you can catch a taste of the production with a clip of Mauffray leading the Hradec Kralove Philharmonic in a rendition of its overture below:

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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