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  • Reciting Parsifal: Opera as Spoken-Word Performance in America
  • Marian Wilson Kimber (bio)

In March 1901 an article about the “society world” in the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “Not much is heard of the sewing circles this Lent, but readings and Wagner recitals are numerous,” noting performances planned by two women at private homes.1 In Who’s Who in the Lyceum, a 1906 guide to the “great personalities” who were available as lecturers and musicians, the entries for a dozen individuals included Parsifal or Madame Butterfly in their repertoire.2 These Chicago socialites and lyceum artists were not singers or directors of opera companies but elocutionists and dramatic readers. Their adaptation of major operatic works for recitals that combined spoken word and musical accompaniment represented an unusual performance practice in the United States.

Spoken recitals of opera, which began in the 1890s, were only a small portion of the widespread performances by elocutionists during this period. Most frequently taken up by those who already included music in platform performances, operatic recitation made up part of the repertoires of a select number of professional spoken-word artists, including a few, such as Amy Grant, who specialized in the practice. Operatic recitals also took place in entertainments for the ubiquitous women’s clubs of the Progressive Era, events reported in newspapers’ society pages. Because programs, in-depth reviews, and firsthand accounts are rare [End Page 4] and no sound recordings are known to exist, reconstructing the exact nature of some of these performances proves difficult. The practice can be pieced together from press notices, as well as from performers’ fliers and elocution publications.

While readers continued to perform spoken opera on the Chautauqua circuit into the early 1920s, elocution’s decreasing popularity after World War I, as well as the lessening presence of opera as part of American popular culture, led to the practice’s decline. Nonetheless, multiple cultural forces helped to create spoken-word opera in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century: the widespread popularity of elocutionary arts, a lingering antitheatrical bias by some audiences, the increasing interest in opera as a high art form, and the music appreciation goals of the women’s club movement. Operatic recitals were often a hybrid of artistic performance and education created with the goal of promoting opera in general or Richard Wagner’s music dramas in particular. The substantial role that women played in such recitals helped to domesticate the large-scale genre of opera, transforming it into a “literary” form suitable for salon entertainments and public platforms. Combining speech and music to varying degrees, these performances served to educate audiences about operatic works and addressed the needs of audiences faced with increasing numbers of operas performed in languages other than English.

Opera as Elocution with Music

In the midst of a long history of itinerant companies, opera houses and companies were established in major American cities in the Progressive Era (the Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883, and the Chicago Grand Opera Company sponsored its first performance in 1910), developments that took place during the period in which oral performance was ubiquitous in America. Both changes in operatic life and the popularity of elocution coincided more generally with the increasing sacralization of the arts, as described by Lawrence Levine and others. Elocutionists’ espoused aspiration to achieve high cultural status motivated their forays into reciting opera. Young women learned the art of elocution at the schools that opened in every major American city.3 Both professional and amateur reciters found ready performance venues at the literary societies or women’s clubs common to the period. They also appeared between the numbers of concerts and in Chautauqua and lyceum performances with ensembles known as concert companies, groups that featured “readers” into the 1920s.

Women performers justified their entry into the public sphere and their usurping oratorical roles traditionally held by men by positioning elocution as high art—through their voices, they became the vessels [End Page 5] of high culture in realizing great literary works, which were similar to musical scores, waiting to be interpreted in an audible form.4 In taking on the role of priestesses of the literary...


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