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  • To the Opera House? The Trials and Tribulations of Operatic Production in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Katherine K. Preston (bio)

Musicologists and historians have recently become more interested in the history of operatic production in the United States during the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century Americans, we now understand, were quite familiar with European opera in all its guises (staged performances, concerts of operatic music, and operatic melodies arranged for various instruments or combinations of instruments). We also are beginning to understand that European opera played a role in nineteenth-century American musical culture that is completely unlike its role in the twenty-first century. Staged operatic productions were a staple of the American popular stage. Americans of most economic classes were attracted to the melodrama of operatic stories; they whistled and hummed the tunes; they attended performances in droves—not as "high art" or as a source of edification but rather (as far as we can tell) for the simple joy of theatrical spectacle, tuneful melodies, and popular entertainment. This ready familiarity with opera as musical theater eventually led to a ubiquity of operatic melody in American society: as dance and parade music, as piano fantasies, "gems" and piano/vocal arrangements, even as pounded out by organ-grinders. That opera was important to nineteenth-century Americans is inescapable; it is also an important component of the performance history of nineteenth-century European opera.

There are still many areas about which we scholars know surprisingly little. Operatic management in general and the performance history of foreign-language opera in the second half of the century are but two of many areas of inquiry that have yet to be thoroughly investigated. Eventually, of course, we must move beyond the basic understanding of performance history and begin to utilize such information to formulate theories about and interpretations of American culture. A more complete understanding of what opera meant to regular Americans of the time—and a better understanding of why opera was so popular—will reveal a great deal about American culture in general. But one cannot realistically embark upon such interpretation without first understanding [End Page 39] the basic performance history. This essay, then, is an attempt to sketch the broad outlines of what we know.

The focus of this article is operatic production in nineteenth-century America, including the locus of production, the managerial modus operandi, and the differences from and similarities to opera presentation in Europe. The story is not easily told, for the country was large, the time period long (and full of social changes), the population diverse, the transportation system a work in progress, and operatic styles themselves in great flux. But the tale is fascinating, rich, and vibrant; primary sources—for those intrepid enough to excavate them—are plentiful. Finally, this chronicle of the trials and tribulations of managers and singers who produced European operas in nineteenth-century America might be sufficiently compelling to inspire others to undertake some of the unfinished research that would fill in some of the blank spaces in our knowledge.

Opera was a complicated business in North America during the nineteenth century, for all the reasons just mentioned. The modus operandi for delivering opera to audiences was anything but uniform, either geographically or chronologically, and differed by location (rural vs. urban settings, frontier vs. long-established areas) as well as by decade (small troupes with star singers were typical of the 1830s, while large, well-appointed, self-sufficient Italian companies emerged in the 1840s; medium-sized English-language troupes materialized in the 1840s and 1850s; and combined opera/operetta companies surfaced in the 1870s). American audience reactions to English-and foreign-language opera differed and changed markedly over the course of the century; furthermore, audiences were themselves transformed over time, as was opera itself. Finally, the reception of opera and its management and production in the United States were simultaneously similar to and dissimilar from reception and production in Europe, so impresarios working in America essentially relied on production techniques from the world of spoken theater and the variety show and improvised the rest.

In this essay I will focus primarily on the "trials and tribulations" that impresarios, singers, theater managers, and musical...


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