America Goes to the Opera

By: Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University) //

To many people, opera means expensive productions of long, melodramatic works composed more than a century ago and sung in a language other than English. The genre conjures up images of formally dressed, older audiences who have spent a small fortune on tickets to attend a performance in a regally appointed opera house in Manhattan or Paris. But opera is not always like this. A quick perusal of YouTube reveals smaller, sometimes student productions, which lack the elaborate scenery, large orchestral accompaniments, and beautiful costumes often associated with opera.

Compare, for instance, two recordings of the opening of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) by Gioachino Rossini: one version performed by the opera company at La Scala Opera House in Milan and another by the students at the Brevard Music Center in the mountains of North Carolina. During the opera’s overture in La Scala’s performance, the camera pans over the sumptuous theater before the opening aria begins at 7:43, sung by a soprano in a lavish costume on a stage filled with extravagant scenery. The students at Brevard, meanwhile, dispense with the overture, sing in English wearing street clothes on a bare stage accompanied only by a piano.

La Cenerentola by Rossini, performed at La Scala in Milan

Opening of La Cenerentola by Rossini, performed by students at the Brevard Music Center

While Brevard’s production may seem to be merely the result of a shoestring budget, there is actually a long history of opera performances that deviate from the written score in ways both large and small. Indeed, according to Katherine K. Preston’s book Opera on the Road, between the 1820s and 1850s, most Americans experienced opera productions that were more similar to Brevard’s interpretation than La Scala’s. European opera was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States throughout much of the nineteenth century. Before the Civil War, no American city could support a residential opera company (such as today’s Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City), so troupes staffed primarily with foreign singers toured around the country.

European companies with the resources to perform operas with relatively few modifications generally confined their touring to large cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Rather than traveling long distances with a full company, something that was almost impossible and certainly prohibitively expensive before the construction of the vast network of railroad lines that made national travel feasible, vocal-star troupes produced most operas. These groups of four to eight performers were often originally from England and generally sang Italian and German operas using English translations. Each troupe included a conductor and enough singers to cover the major roles in a limited repertory of operas such as Vincenzo Bellini’s La SonnambulaRossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville) and Cinderella; and Wolfgang Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro).

These small companies had to rely on the resources available in the town where they were performing. Each theater provided generic sets that could be used for a variety of situations. Local audiences, then, saw the same garden, drawing room, and exterior castle backdrops (for example) in every performance they attended, no matter whether it was a Shakespeare play, an Italian opera, or a melodrama. The theater’s orchestra was responsible for the accompaniment, and local singers and actors filled out the chorus and performed the minor roles. Singers unfamiliar with the language of the touring production simply sang in the language they knew, resulting in bi- or even tri-lingual presentations. If there were not enough people available who could sing the parts, then roles were either spoken by an actor or cut entirely. Typically, the chorus was very small or omitted altogether. The theaters were usually simple, often little more than a room above a saloon or a store with an elevated stage on one end.

The performances themselves could be almost unrecognizable compared to the printed music. Many companies started with the original score and cut it according to the resources available. It was just as likely, however, that the audience heard an “Englished” version of the opera—a tradition developed in Great Britain and brought to America by some of the vocal-star troupes. In an “Englished” adaptation, the opera was not only translated into English, but its ensemble numbers were also cut, dialogue was spoken rather than sung in recitative, difficult arias were rearranged into easier versions, and additional musical material—such as popular ballads or well-known pieces from other operas—were added. In effect, the opera resembled a musical with a rather muddled plot more than the original composition.

Americans experienced opera in other ways, too. Sheet music with arrangements of arias, ensemble, and instrumental numbers sold widely in the United States. The lyrics in the sheet music could be in the original language, in faithful translations, or sometimes significantly altered in order to conform to strict Victorian moral codes. Bands and orchestras played arrangements of famous arias, ensembles, and overtures. Nineteenth-century audiences also enjoyed opera burlesques—theatrical extravaganzas that took music and plots from operas but changed them substantially in order to make fun of a particular work or even the genre as a whole. Burlesques could be short and included as part of a minstrel show or other entertainment, or could stand alone. These productions were not necessarily broad humor, but clever re-workings of an existing opera that were successful because the audience knew the source material well and could understand the jokes. Saturday Night Live sketches that refer to popular movies, songs, or TV shows use a similar approach. Opera burlesques still exist today, although they are not nearly as common as in the nineteenth century. The Abduction of Figaro by P.D.Q. Bach (the pseudonym used by composer Peter Schickele) features music that sounds similar to Mozart’s style, but makes fun of opera’s musical conventions, ridiculous plots, and even the overheated acting style of some opera singers.

Act I, Scene I of The Abduction of Figaro by P.D.Q. Bach. Notice the elevated musical style and exaggerated acting that accompanies the silly and endlessly repeated lyrics, as well as the ridiculous situation in this scene. At 1:29, the composer interpolates a short quotation from Stephen Foster’s song “Oh! Susanna” to emphasize the absurdity of the combination of operatic style and popular tunes.

Before the Civil War, audiences across all socio-economic and even racial lines attended the opera. No matter how it was presented, opera was an entertainment for the masses—similar to TV shows or movies in the twenty-first century. These performances may not always have been faithful to the original score, but they retained the characteristics that drew people to the genre: the soaring melodies, clever accompaniments, inviting stories, and the spectacle of the stage. After the Civil War, however, some of the more drastic alterations of familiar operas such as the “Englished” versions and productions with a severely limited cast became significantly less common. Audiences came to expect full productions. Traveling opera companies began to tour with their own orchestras and sets along with much larger casts, including a chorus. While these performances were much closer to the original score, they were also much more expensive to produce and required a large theater to accommodate the sets and increased personnel. Fewer people could afford to attend the opera, or lived near a city with a theater that could accommodate the larger troupes. And by the early twentieth century, opera had lost its place at the center of American popular culture.

For Discussion

  1. Compare the two performances of the opening of La Cenerentola embedded at the beginning of this essay. Which performance do you prefer and why?
  2. Go to Saturday Night Live’s website. Pick out one of the many sketches that refers to a popular entertainment such as a movie or TV show. What sort of information does the viewer have to know in order to understand the jokes in the skit you chose? Do you think viewers ten or twenty years in the future will understand them?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s