- Notes from (the Road to) the Stage
It is difficult for twenty-first-century opera lovers and scholars to comprehend just how ubiquitous the performance of European opera was in the United States during the nineteenth century. This is primarily because we Americans know so little about our cultural heritage; even worse, most of us have strong preconceived notions—usually spectacularly incorrect—both about how important (or unimportant) music was in the lives of our nineteenth-century ancestors and about the different types of music they might have known. Some of the articles in these issues devoted to "Opera in the Americas/American Opera" will provide valuable insight into and illumination of this aspect of opera performance history in the Americas. But first-person accounts written by some of the performers actually involved in the production of opera in nineteenth-century America would make this all seem more real: it would provide a much more vivid picture of how these performers lived and worked, the types of adventures they experienced, and—in general—what it was like to be an itinerant opera performer in America during the nineteenth century. There are plentiful primary sources that document the activities of itinerant opera companies active in the United States during this period, and some of them are wonderfully immediate and evocative. For that reason, we have decided to share—via the arbitrarily renamed "Notes from the (Road to the) Stage" forum—some excerpts from the journals of Anthony Reiff, the musical director of several touring opera troupes active in America in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Reiff (1840–1916), a conductor, theater musician, violinist, pianist, and singer, was an American journeyman musician who enjoyed a successful performing career for over half a century. A native of New York, he was the son of one of the founders of the Philharmonic Society of New York (the modern New York Philharmonic Orchestra), and began performing at the age of thirteen as a member of the orchestra that accompanied Jenny Lind in her enormously successful series of concerts in New York City during 1853. He subsequently played violin in several theater orchestras and quickly became a conductor at the Bowery Theatre in Manhattan. During 1855–56, he accompanied the Pyne and Harrison English Opera Company on its six-month tour of the United States, serving as an orchestra conductor and a musical director for this troupe. Later in the 1850s and throughout the 1860s, he served as a musical director for a series of opera companies, including the New English Opera Company, the Lyster and [End Page 103] Durand English Opera Company, Maguire's Italian Opera Company, and the Clara Kellogg and Teresa Parepa-Rosa opera companies—all of these troupes toured widely in the United States. In 1861, he traveled to Australia with William Saurin Lyster and his operatic troupe; he remained there as the musical director of Lyster's company until 1863.1
As the member of a variety of traveling opera troupes, Reiff was not extraordinary. During the nineteenth century, there were thousands of instrumentalists, principal singers, chorus members, managers, prompters, costumers, agents, and lackeys who traveled and performed opera all over North America. What set Reiff apart, however, was his penchant for keeping journals. Presumably starting with the 1855–56 tour, he kept extensive and detailed diaries, probably for all of his travels; luckily for modern scholars, several of them have survived and are now safely stored in research libraries.2 In his earliest diary, Reiff documents almost the entire Pyne and Harrison Company trip of 1855–56 (one month is missing); he was a young man ( just fifteen at the time), and this apparently was his first extended trip away from home. He provides almost no details about the company's performances or about audience reactions, but his sardonic comments, sometimes wide-eyed observations, and detailed remarks about his adventures bring the experiences of touring musicians vividly alive. The second document, which is a typed transcript that Reiff made of his diaries early in the twentieth century, is still full of delicious firsthand detail, but now it also occasionally includes asides from an older man...