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  • Opera in the Americas/American Opera: An Introduction
  • Daniel Herwitz

Opera was for me, growing up outside of Boston in the early 1960s, the Met’s Sunday broadcast with Milton Cross’s avuncular, plummy accent. The perfume of his voice was that of high culture par excellence, bottled: the culture of the American grand tour (we open in Venice, and then to Verona, all the way to the Metropolitan Opera House, New York). When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I used to teach music appreciation at the Hyde Park Senior Citizens Jewish Community Center. As soon as I pulled out the opera records, someone would inevitably whine from the back, “You got any Mario Lanza?” Hollywood, with the overweight, overused Lanza in the leading role, had brought opera to the American immigrant, and by opera was meant some stereotype of an Italian with a suitcase full of high Cs and Caruso disguises. Remember the commercial sung to the tune of “Veste la juba”: “No more Rice Krispies, we’re out of Rice Krispies. My tears will not stop till I hear snap, crackle, pop.” A man in an undershirt and with hairy arms lay prostrate on the table after finishing it, his bowl of cereal unpoured and untouched. Such is high tragedy, Americano style.

Opera played into the American desire for Eurocentric idealization with aplomb, since it was always an elite dress-up affair that swept one away into the chambers of the Henry James heart through its grand canals of grand aria. However, while opera was busy transplanting this more European-than-Europe continent onto our own, Harry Parch, John Cage, and others were on the job avowing voices of American exceptionalism, creating something akin to antiopera with mythic origins in the Arizona desert, Tibetan Himalayas, and the I Ching. These composers invented their own scales and instruments out of what you could find in your garage, blending sound and noise in a way that blows the formulae of aria and recitative back across the continental divide and beyond. America’s veering between Euro-dependency and Americano-exceptionalism is a mark of American culture wherever it may be found, and of settler cultures, generally. It is a position taken about identity and national belonging, which new countries formed out of the old often have to work through, and nowhere has the task been more operatically conveyed than in, and about, opera: on the one hand, Margaret Dumont opening the American purse strings for the German impresario, and on the other, Harpo swinging from the rafters and Groucho screaming “buggabuggabugga” as Azucena belts out her Italian lyric of prophetic doom in the American opera house. [End Page 395] This is opera called for and rejected in the same boat. On that boat, into Cabin 58 are squeezed Chico (itinerant musician), Alan Jones (the third stowaway, who plays the tenor Riccardo Baronne, the film’s love interest), two maids who arrive to fix the bed, one manicurist, an engineer and his monstrously huge assistant, a young society dame looking for her aunt, a cleaning lady to mop up, and three waiters who’ve brought trays full of food for the boys. Everybody is crawling over everybody else in this colloquy of teeming masses waiting to break free, which happens when Dumont, aka Mrs. Claypool, opens the door to keep her appointment with Otis P. Driftwood (aka Groucho) and the entire crowd tumbles out all over her. Among these teeming masses waiting to spill out of Cabin 58 in A Night at the Opera, that masterpiece about opera, Europe, money, cultural pretense, and American difference, are Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, William Bolcom and Bright Sheng and Michael Daugherty and Osvaldo Golijov, who (all having vacated Europe some time back) have been ready and waiting to recreate opera in an idiom that yields Americana to Europe and Europe to Americana, fusing modernist principle with Broadway boogie-woogie, spinto with scat, dramatic spectacle with musical theater, tango, religious incantation, native American pulse. Their forefather is George Gershwin.

“Opera in the Americas/American Opera” is about America’s ambivalence toward an opera reflective of itself, or rather, the complex...


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pp. 395-397
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