Piper’s Opera House and the Virginia Benevolent Association
The building that currently sits on B Street in Virginia City, Nevada is the third iteration of Piper’s Opera House. Wealthy entrepreneur John Piper financed the city’s first opera house in 1863, but the structure burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1875. Three years later in 1878, Piper funded construction for a new opera house on the same land, yet it also burned down in 1883. To raise money for yet another opera house, Piper rented Cooper Hall and began presenting various entertainments within only days after the 1883 fire. Piper’s (third) Opera House opened its doors on March 6, 1885, and John Piper organized a town dance on the same day to celebrate its completion.
This final version of Piper’s Opera House, built into the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, has a stone foundation and masonry façade with wooden shiplap siding and asymmetrical arched windows. Inside is an auditorium smaller than a full basketball court, a sloped stage which makes the entire area visible from any seat, a box office, and Piper’s private apartment. Colorful and textured wallpapers adorn the auditorium interior, and wooden flooring runs throughout. The opera house still bears its original sign, featured above the entrance doors. In its early history, the building served as a performing venue, meeting ground, and training facility for boxers.
Piper’s three Opera Houses also provided acceptable public forums for women to participate in amateur and professional theater. The Virginia Benevolent Association produced a concert in 1875 to raise funds to help the poor prepare for winter. Club women provided much of the entertainment. Members recited from Hiawatha, sang “Good Night My Sweet,” and played the hornpipe. One club affiliate reminisced that the opera house provided an outlet for women to express themselves in a safe space, whether in public or privately among a few women. Piper’s Opera House was an essential location for Virginia City’s women to discover and develop creative expression.
The Virginia Benevolent Association disbanded in the early-twentieth century, but Piper’s Opera House still hosts events today. Theater production is ongoing, and Piper’s is also a popular venue for local events like weddings, ceremonies, birthdays, and holidays. Preservationists secured the opera house a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.