The first opera company in Washington was organized in the 1870s by African Americans.

The long-forgotten story of the Colored American Opera Company is being unearthed by a network of scholars, musicians and archivists led by the Music Center at Strathmore. The effort is to culminate next February in a program at Strathmore of the company's music called "Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company."

At the center of the story is St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church and its predecessor, the parish of Blessed Martin de Porres.

Blessed Martin's chapel was founded in 1858, and drew members from the burgeoning black middle class. In 1862, parishioner George Coakley, an oyster supplier, got permission from President Abraham Lincoln to have the church's Fourth of July picnic next to the White House. (The event raised $1,000 for the Blessed Martin's school.)

By 1866, it had established a flourishing music program.

"They were self-sufficient, literate people who knew music," says Dena Grant, an archivist for St. Augustine's and a literature specialist at the Library of Congress. "We forget there were black people who knew classical music."

Birth of an OperaWhere the idea for an opera company came from is not entirely clear, but the group was organized by a barber, William T. Benjamin. The opera company came together in 1873 with John Esputa, a well-known white teacher, as its director. He had worked with St. Augustine's since 1868, according to a church history written by Morris J. MacGregor in 1999. How the partnership happened is not entirely clear.

"What it looks like is that he lived in the Navy Yard neighborhood, and the parish priest at [the nearby] St. Peter's Catholic Church was the Rev. Felix Barotti. He became the priest at Blessed Martin's, and recruited Esputa as the music director," says Patrick Warfield, visiting assistant professor of music at Georgetown University.

Esputa had been an apprentice of the U.S. Marine Band, where his father played, and then joined the band himself. He and his father ran a music school near the Marine Barracks, and John Philip Sousa was one of their students. About the time Esputa began working with the black church, he became a music teacher for the Washington Colored Schools.

The parish choir, according to the MacGregor history, sang Haydn and Mozart at well-attended performances chronicled by the daily newspapers, as well as the Catholic Mirror. "On Easter Sunday in 1873, for example, the choir performed Haydn's 'Solemn Mass in Honor of the Blessed Virgin' and Antonio Diabelli's 'Gaudeamus' accompanied by a small orchestra of trumpets, horns and strings," wrote MacGregor.

By 1873, the opera company was a distinct part of the church's music program. In addition to Benjamin, who was a baritone, singers included Mary A.C. Coakley, a contralto and a former slave who sewed for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln; George Jackson, a baritone who fought in the Civil War; soprano Agnes Gray Smallwood; contralto Lena Miller; bass Thomas H. Williams and tenors Henry F. Grant and Richard Tompkins.

That year, the company produced "The Doctor of Alcantara," a popular work of the time by Julius Eichberg, a German-born composer. There were seven performances in Philadelphia and Washington, including two at Ford's Theatre and one at Lincoln Hall at Ninth and D streets NW that drew 1,500 people.

An advertisement in the Daily National Republican appealed to the city's mayor, A.R. "Boss" Shepherd, to attend. "We hope to be able to demonstrate that our race will in time be capable of taking rank musically with our white brothers and sisters," the invitation read.

The Daily Washington Chronicle reported: "Lincoln Hall was literally packed. Of course the majority of the audience was colored, and included a host of the personal friends of the singers. . . . Quite a third of the audience was composed of white ladies and gentlemen, largely attracted, perhaps, by the novelty of the affair." The writer went on to say: "The choruses were effective. In dramatic ability there was little lacking, and the singers were quite as natural as many who appear in German and French opera."

But the company wasn't performing just for musical glory. It was raising money for the church. According to the church's historians, the opera brought in $75,000, which went toward a new building and a $14,000 organ. A two-story sanctuary and school at 15th and L streets were completed in 1874 and dedicated in 1876. The new church was named after Saint Augustine, a bishop and African saint.

At the dedication, the U.S. Marine Band, led by Sousa, played Alois F. Lejeal's "Solemn Vespers," with soloists from the opera troupe. Church historian MacGregor reported that an 18-piece orchestra performed with two choirs on the occasion.

But that was one of the last appearances for the opera company. After helping to pay for the new building, it was disbanded. Those who have looked at the slim records of the company have concluded it had reached its goal, and also, Esputa became ill and moved way.

But the church and its music became an important force in the city. President Rutherford B. Hayes and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass attended services at St. Augustine's. A 1905 newspaper article described it as the largest black Catholic church in the country.

Those days weren't "quite as segregated as we think," says Warfield, the Georgetown professor. "People were moving back and forth between the communities." The church was at the same location until 1948, when The Washington Post bought the property. It relocated to 15th and V streets NW, and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year.

RediscoveryThe story of the Colored American Opera Company is barely a footnote in local histories.

"I didn't realize the opera was something so buried," said Strathmore Artistic Director Shelley Brown. In 2003, Brown was researching music created in Washington for the Strathmore's Timeline Concert Series and found a mention of the company. But, at first, she found little else. "It was a fairly short-lived company and it wasn't studied," Brown says.

Even church members knew only a small part of the story. "We knew it was well-known in its day and had toured to raise money for the building, but very little else," says Grant, who is helping St. Augustine's organize anniversary events.

Brown reached out to the academic community to find any information about the group. Grant found an 1880 book, "Music and Some Highly Musical People," by James M. Trotter, in the Library of Congress archives. It contained a chapter on the opera, which included the list of performers.

Raymond Jackson, professor of music at Howard University, says the company was new to him, but he wasn't entirely surprised to learn of its history. The ties to the arts were strong in slave and freed communities, he explains. "There was such a love for music and a desire to be involved in something cultural and a desire to be part of a bigger world experience," Jackson says.

Esputa's music came from various sources. "Esputa wrote a Mass, a very simple piece, about 15 minutes," says Warfield. "His other music was parlor music, a polka, a waltz. 'The Doctor of Alcantara' [by Eichberg] was one of the most popular operettas of its time and performed by a lot of companies. It's Gilbert and Sullivan-like," he says.

In February 2008, Strathmore and the Morgan State University Choir will re-create an evening focused on music the company performed.

On the program will be a restaging of "The Doctor of Alcantara," an 1862 work the historians say hasn't been performed in about 100 years. The concert will also include two recently discovered pieces: Esputa's "Mass in C" and Sousa's "Te Deum."

Joseph Horowitz, artistic director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, a chamber orchestra, says the event will break down a number of impressions people have about the word opera and the 19th century. A panel of music experts will discuss the era.

"The fascination of 'The Doctor of Alcantara' is that it is completely different from classical music as we know it today. The distinctions we make today were not in place. When we talk about opera, we think the grand opera, perpetuated by the Metropolitan Opera. In the 19th century, there was no dominant notion of opera. It could take place in a small place and didn't necessarily attract opera elitists," says Horowitz.

The organizers hope the tribute will provide a glimpse into a Washington that disappeared, both socially and musically.

Eliot Pfanstiehl, president of Strathmore Hall Foundation, says the revival is part of the organization's move to produce, as well as present music. "We want to pay homage to regional music," he says. "We would like to become known as a musical house that honors its own. And we believe part of Strathmore's role is to take an artistic risk."