Snapshot Stories: The French Opera Barber Shop

Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives based on old photographs. This installment features Barber Shop, taken by Walker Evans in New Orleans in 1935.

Lola’s barber shop was home to the Perfecto Hair Restorer, the 15 cent Ladies Neck Trim, and an unlimited supply of French opera. The two-story residence on Royal Street was bought and designed by James Gallier Jr., the architect of some of the finest buildings in New Orleans, including the old French Opera House. James was not responsible for the red and white stripes that now covered the entrance to the shop. When his great-granddaughter Lola became the sole owner of the house, she turned the ground floor into a barber shop and rented out the apartments upstairs. The stripes were such a contrast to the wrought-iron balconies that the residents of the French Quarter began to take notice and she received a steady trickle of customers.

Every trim ended with a “do you like the Opera?” and an invitation to be a part of the performances held almost every late afternoon, just there in the back. The neat stripes disintegrated into a passageway lined with peeling plaster and hints of red brick, opening out to a large courtyard. In place of formal theater decor, the stage emitted extravagant, slightly cloying scent, like heavy costumes that accumulate the sweat of their performers. Among palms and orange-flowered trumpet vines, the oily notes of drooping magnolias competed with the persistent fragrance of jasmine and sweet olive. Across the courtyard, a narrow flight of stairs connected the upstairs residents to their evening entertainment.

The camellias surrounding the fountain were a gift from Mrs. Pipes, a soprano who also happened to have one of the largest collections of camellias in New Orleans. She was particularly fond of varieties popular in the antebellum days, and some of her specimens were descendants of the first plants brought over from France. Her voice did occasionally reach the upper registers of hysteria, but listeners knew it was a sign of excitement rather than flourish. After the old French Opera House burned down in 1919, Mrs. Pipes believed this courtyard to be the last remnant of the good old days.

Mr. Spattafore and his green parakeet Monk caused some vexation for Mrs. Pipes. Monk could whistle operatic melodies, an ability highly prized in the absence of recordings. Lola did have one plate of Adelina Patti which she saved for special occasions. But Monk did not always stick with the program. He would start with Violetta’s Ah, fors’è lui from La Traviata and end with Basilio’s La calunnia è un venticello from The Barber of Seville, a dip in tone that no one singer could sustain. Mrs. Pipes, who always played Violetta, would be caught in mid-rapture. She accused Mr. Spattafore of not training his parakeet diligently enough, but he picked up Basilio’s aria with a smile and a low, crackling bass supported by the whimsical intonations of old creole songs.