Temperamental Differences
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Opera in America after the Civil War: Many Languages and a Splintered Audience

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie Pretty Woman (1990), Richard Gere’s character takes Julia Roberts to the San Francisco Opera. She wears a stunning dress but is clearly uncomfortable in their box seats at the lavish opera house. Gere, who plays a sophisticated businessman eager to introduce Roberts to the finer things in life, warns her that people have strong reactions to opera. The scene tells us much about how Americans today view this musical form. In Pretty Woman, it’s exotic, best enjoyed in luxury by older, wealthy people in expensive, formal clothes, and presented in an atmosphere completely different from the fun, relaxed concerts most people attend. The humor of the scene is the fish-out-of-water prostitute (played by Roberts) who does not know how to behave. She interacts with the other operagoers with wide-eyed ignorance and naiveté, out of place among the cultured (and uptight) sophisticates around her. Yet, without preconceived notions about opera, she is drawn to the beautiful music and the story of La traviata, which bears some resemblance to her own life.

This view of opera as the forbidding preserve of the wealthy, so embedded in our culture now, was just beginning to take shape one hundred years before Pretty Woman was released. For much of the nineteenth century, opera in the United States was a popular form of entertainment attended by men and women from all walks of life. Excerpts from operas also turned up in minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, sheet music destined for the parlor, and on the bandstand. However, the audience for operas performed in full began to fragment in the 1870s, and this fragmentation is one of the reasons that opera is on the periphery of America’s cultural life today.

Although some American composers wrote operas in the late nineteenth century, few of these works made it to the stage, and none entered the repertory. Instead, opera companies continued the practice established before the Civil War of performing operas composed in Europe. With a robust railroad system serving the entire country by the 1870s, it was possible for large opera companies to journey around the nation. These troupes, usually between fifty and 125 people, traveled with a full cast (including a chorus), an orchestra, sets, and costumes for as many as ten or fifteen different operas. Companies sometimes had to make changes to the original score to accommodate their resources, but they were usually relatively minor. For instance, the boys’ choir part was often omitted from Carmen by Georges Bizet because few groups traveled with children. These large troupes had higher expenses and needed bigger stages to accommodate more elaborate sets than earlier in the century, so ticket prices began to rise. Tickets that once were 75 cents or maybe a dollar, by 1910 could cost as much as five dollars or even more for special performances by the most prestigious companies. Some smaller towns that once hosted opera productions before the 1870s or 1880s were bypassed by larger troupes at the end of the century that could not financially justify a stop. Thus, it became more difficult for many Americans to hear a full opera performance, as it was expensive to attend and often necessitated a train trip to a larger city.

The most noticeable modification made to operas in the late nineteenth century was in the performance language. No matter the original language of the work, operas routinely were performed with the lyrics translated into a new language. Over many years of attending the opera, a devoted fan could easily hear the same work in English, German, Italian, and sometimes French. Opera troupes tended to perform their repertoire in one language. This allowed the singers to concentrate on one language, and the companies could brand themselves based, in part, on their performance language. French opera was popular in New Orleans, but those opera companies rarely made extensive tours. German, Italian, and English were the most popular languages.

Today, most companies only perform operas in the original language of composition because it is difficult to pair an existing melody with new words that fit the tune well. Compare the two recordings of the “Jewel Song” from Charles Gounod’s Faust below—one performed in German and the other in the original French. French sounds almost liquid and sometimes nasal when sung, while German contains more guttural sounds and words that end with hard consonants. Sometimes high notes (especially toward the end of the aria), paired in the original French with easier-to-sing open vowel sounds, must be sung in German with vowels that are harder to sing. These subtle differences make the German sound as if it does not fit the melody quite as easily and naturally as the French lyrics.


Renee Fleming sings the “Jewel Song” in the original French


Maria Stader singing Gounod’s “Jewel Song” in German Translation


Opera performed in different languages began to take on different cultural connotations after the Civil War, attracting different types of audiences. European opera performed in English translation was most popular among the middle class. Even though the English-language opera companies performed the same European repertory as that performed by foreign-language companies, audiences perceived English-language operas as more American because the works were sung in English by modestly paid American-born singers.

One such singer was soprano Emma Abbott, who headed the most successful of the English-language companies. An Illinois native, she carefully crafted a public image as a “true American woman” who was deeply religious and shared her audience’s conservative values. Between 1879 and 1891, she attracted sold-out crowds throughout the United States as star and co-manager (with her husband) of the Emma Abbott English Grand Opera Company. She controlled her costs so that she could keep her ticket prices low—at about one dollar per seat—and performed familiar operas such as Daughter of the Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti, Faust and Romeo and Juliet by Gounod, and Il Trovatore and Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. She was so successful that after her sudden death at age 40 in 1891, she left an estate rumored to be worth one million dollars (that’s almost $27 million today)! The picture below shows her in a modest costume as Marguerite in Faust, one of the most popular operas that her company produced.


Emma Abbott as Marguerite in Faust by Charles Gounod. She always performed the opera in English


Abbott’s populist approach and homespun image appealed to a middle-class audience that appreciated her commitment to entertainment over moral or social uplift. Other opera troupes catered to different segments of the opera audience. Critics and audiences linked opera performed in Italian with wealth, luxury, and even immorality. Edith Wharton’s novels from the turn of the twentieth century provide evidence of this connection. They describe Italian opera performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House as the soundtrack that accompanied the gossip and scheming of the wealthiest American families. Italian opera’s audience members were caricatured in the press as more interested in the social value of being seen at the opera than in the music itself. European celebrity singers who specialized in singing in Italian were some of the highest paid performers in the United States, and their salaries (as well as the lavish productions) made the best tickets for Italian opera the most expensive in the entertainment industry—between four and five dollars. While Italian opera singers had been accused of being overpaid in Europe for centuries, in the United States, newspapers did not begin publicizing their high salaries until after the Civil War. In 1887, newspapers reported that Adelina Patti, the most famous soprano of her time, earned $5,000 per night when she sang with an Italian opera company touring the United States. That’s over $100,000 in today’s dollars.

The Metropolitan Opera Company (founded in 1883) was particularly well known for its close relationship to the super-rich robber barons of the Gilded Age and the extravagant salaries the troupe paid its singers. In 1894 (during a season where they sang most or all of their repertory in Italian), the Washington Post reported that the Metropolitan paid its Polish lead tenor, Jean de Reske, $1,250 per performance. The two most famous prima donnas brought from overseas that season, French-born Emma Calvé and Australian Nellie Melba, each made $1,000 per night. Even if the newspapers inflated the salaries in their reports, it is clear that foreign opera singers made a fortune when they sang in America. What was the Metropolitan getting for their money? The recording below is of Nellie Melba singing “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, an opera she performed many times with the Metropolitan Opera Company.


Nellie Melba, “Caro Nome,” recorded in 1904


Meanwhile, opera in German came to stand for moral uplift and musical depth. American critics at the turn of the century were deeply influenced by Richard Wagner’s operas as well as his philosophical ideas. Opera sung in German, particularly Wagner’s works but also operas sung in German translation, were connected with a third type of opera audience—musically literate, culturally sophisticated people who valued art music for its supposed ability to elevate the listener’s moral values and open up new spiritual vistas. Although many American and European critics and listeners had long ascribed such powers to the Austro-German orchestral repertory by composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that some critics began to extend such power to opera.

While it might seem strange to us that the same operas performed in different languages would have different social meanings, it is not all that different from our perceptions about foreign-language movies. Even a fairly standard thriller seems more sophisticated when it is in French playing at an art house, compared to a blockbuster starring an American actor at the local movie theater.

By World War One, the fractured opera audience, as well as the fractured meaning of opera depending upon the language of performance, became untenable. Even performances in English were not enough to protect European opera from the negative connotations of the excessive wealth of the Italian opera audience or the excessive moralizing by German opera’s adoring fans. Middle-class audiences looking for an affordable night of entertainment began to abandon opera, turning to musical theater, which was both cheaper and less culturally fraught. Meanwhile, operas performed in foreign languages had become the most expensive entertainment events in America. Only people who were motivated to spend much of their discretionary income on opera tickets (or who had lots of financial resources) could afford to attend. Eventually opera (in any language) became associated with the elite—whether that meant an elite audience with enough musical education to appreciate every nuance of the composer’s intent, or the wealthy elite who valued opera only for the social connections they could cement through attending.


For Discussion

  1. One reason opera became associated with the wealthy elite was because of the high ticket prices that discouraged regular people from attending. But today, concert tickets for famous pop singers such as Beyoncé or Adele are many times more expensive than the average opera ticket. Why do you think pop music is still thought of as music for the masses, while opera has not been able to shake its image as elite music?
  2. Opera companies in the U.S. and Europe have begun to simulcast performances to movie theaters in an effort to widen opera’s appeal, and boost ticket sales. How might viewing opera in a movie theater, rather than in a fancy (and distant) opera house be a more comfortable and familiar experience? Would you be more or less likely to attend an opera at your local movie house or live at an opera house and why?


A.C. Douglas

"Why do you think pop music is still thought of as music for the masses, while opera has not been able to shake its image as elite music?"

I don't mean to be flip about this but the clear (and obvious) answer to your above question is that compared with the relatively simple and, more often than not, simplistic music of pop, opera music *IS* "elite music" — even the most fluffy of Italian or French fluff — and there's no way of getting around that nor should one want to. Elite anything is always to be honored and cherished (as opposed to "elitist" anything which ought never to be) as a thing of meaningful, positive value both culturally and socially and not as something to be "shake[n]" off.


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