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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 293-294

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Book Review

Democracy at the Opera:
Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815-60

Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815-60. By Karen Ahlquist. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997; pp. xvii + 200. $29.95.

With the current emphasis on interdisciplinary studies in academia, Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815-60 is a step in the right direction. This examination of American history establishes a relationship between the evolution of classical vocal performance and theatrical developments in New York City during the first half of the nineteenth century, before the Metropolitan Opera Company. Karen Ahlquist, a musicologist at George Washington University, weaves various threads together that traverse the boundaries of operatic and dramatic theatre circles, while contending with social issues, prominent personalities, organizations and the affectations thereof. This book brings us closer to a vital understanding that the performing arts are closely related through a variety of cultural, political and sociological developments.

Notable primary sources are referenced in the bibliography, establishing that there is a wealth of information available for research on nineteenth-century New York. While drawing upon a wide range of historical periodicals, Ahlquist's book is written more in the style of novella than a scholarly account. This may make the reading more palatable to some. Conclusions, however, are prescribed throughout, and at times, her evaluation of audience responses to theatrical events appears to impose late twentieth-century theatrical values on an early nineteenth-century setting.

Clever mention of nineteenth-century wit recalls a few nicknames that the Astor Place Opera House (unfortunately) acquired: Astor Palace, Disaster Place, and Uproar House (134). But in the author's recollection of several theatrical events and dates, she falls short. The Park Theatre was, for example, [End Page 293] actually established in 1825, not 1826, even though the building's corner stone was placed in 1826. In the entire discourse on puritanical expectations, there is no mention of the temperance movement which had a dynamic influence on American theatrical concepts and performance content. In addition, this multifaceted account of "music, theater, and culture" mentions very little about authors and literature.

The Beggar's Opera, a ballad opera, is substantially referenced throughout to establish theoretical roots in the acceptance of opera in New York City. "[A]lthough eighteenth-century critics of opera advocated popular pieces such as The Beggar's Opera, their nineteenth-century New York counterparts were armed instead with the symphonies of Beethoven" (195). The issue of the connection of opera in the nineteenth century to this eighteenth-century English ballad opera is more aptly a basis for researching the development of vaudeville and variety entertainment in America.

The Garcia Opera Company at the Park Theatre is placed at the forefront for introducing Italian language opera to New York. Their performance repertoire included Rossini, Garcia (two original operas by company head Manuel Garcia), Mozart and Zingarelli (56). We learn of the significance of the Garcias' singing talent during the 1820s, but regrettably, we never learn about them as a family, an ensemble, their training, or their interpretive school of thought. Ahlquist does state that Maria Garcia's first language was most likely French, not Italian.

This issue of language brings to light two major concerns in this publication. First, there is an absence of specific and critical citations. Second, the researcher has not chosen to address that the roots of American operatic performance are anchored in the declamatory style. Nineteenth-century American audiences delighted in a sweet melody, but they reveled in emphasis on text, which is definitively a compositional characteristic of French opera. Could it be that the "Italian" influences may not have been solely Italian at all, but rather a combination of several European styles? Ahlquist acknowledges that the Italian language performance lost favor after the Garcias left New York. English translations then became more popular. But the interpretation of this information is somewhat rigid and even though...


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