Expensive, edifying, elite: Opera has a reputation in America today, and it’s not necessarily a great one; most Americans certainly don’t regard it as popular culture. But it hasn’t always been that way.
For much of the 19th century, in fact, attending an opera performance was rather like going to the movies today.
“During that period opera wasn’t yet high art,” explained Katherine Preston, David N. & Margaret C. Bottoms Professor of Music at William & Mary. “Rather, it was entertainment, and the people who listened to it were people much like us.”
During the spring 2015 Tack Faculty Lecture, Preston will shed some light on this little-known aspect of American music history by telling the story of Emma Abbott, an American soprano and the artistic director of an opera company, who gracefully defied the general trend to make opera into an aristocratic or cultural pastime by providing the American people with what they wanted: opera as entertainment, performed in English.
The lecture, “An American Prima Donna and Apple-Pie Opera,” will be held April 22 at 7 p.m. in the Kimball Theatre. The event is free and open to the public, but attendees are asked to register online in advance. The series, which features a lecture by one faculty member every semester, was created with a generous gift from Martha '78 and Carl Tack '78.
Opera and class in the late 19th century
In the early 19th century, Americans of all classes went to the theatre on a regular basis. The offerings at any one theatre would change every week, and ranged from minstrel shows to dramas, from dancers and acrobats to English or Italian opera.
“I have looked at lots of diaries, magazines, letters, and newspapers,” Preston said, “and from what I can tell, it appears that people, in a very catholic way, went to whatever was being performed.”
Although a growing class of wealthy Americans (buttressed after the Civil War by a burgeoning population of the nouveau riche) endeavored to make attendance at foreign-language opera into an aristocratic pastime, in reality, many middle-class Americans still attended productions of opera, even when it was sung in Italian. This all changed with the Panic of 1873, which was the worst economic crisis the country had ever seen.
“When the Panic hit, people became more careful with their discretionary entertainment money and stopped going to Italian opera, in part because it was expensive, and in part because for the first time they realized how expensive the prima donnas were,” said Preston. “They called them ‘greedy canaries’ and ‘extortionists.’ So basically, at that point, middle-class Americans turned their backs on foreign-language opera.”
English-language companies, however, performed the same repertory as the Italian troupes but translated it into English and charged ticket prices that were much lower. These companies basically stepped into the breach and targeted this audience of Americans who had a new aversion towards foreign-language opera but still enjoyed operatic performances.
Abbott and her husband, Eugene Wetherell, led one such company with great success. In the 11 years that they ran the troupe, it never had a losing season – an extraordinary accomplishment, said Preston, especially for a prima donna who started as the daughter of a church choir director from Peoria, Illinois. “Hers is a classic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of story,” said Preston. “It is a pretty amazing story.”
Loved by the people, loathed by critics
Around the age of 9, Abbott started performing professionally with her father and brother. They travelled around the Chicago area, and, after garnering some acclaim, she went on the road herself, singing and accompanying herself on the guitar in church halls and hotel lobbies. Her first big break occurred when she met the American prima donna Clara Louise Kellogg, who was impressed by the young singer’s ability and tenacity. Following Kellogg’s advice, Abbott went first to New York and then to Paris and Milan to study for the operatic stage. In 1876, she returned to the United States and eventually began to perform English-language opera, tailoring it to meet the needs and desires of her audience.
“She gave the people what they wanted,” Preston explained. “She streamlined her performances to a certain extent so that people who had to go to work the next day could attend the theatre. She also responded to popular requests to add songs to the performances. She listened to her audiences, and was phenomenally successful.”
Despite her success, Abbott faced derision from some contemporary American music critics, Preston continued, in part because it was around this same time – the 1880s – that the Wagner craze began to emerge in the United States.
“German opera, especially the music-dramas of Richard Wagner, was all about cultural uplift – the idea that opera should be edifying and uplifting. It became capital ‘A’ Art,” Preston explained. “And that created conflict: On the one side were the wealthy supporters of Italian opera, who went to performances because it was entertaining and also an activity that they could use for the ostentatious display of wealth; on the other were the cultural elite whose attitude was that opera should be sublime and uplifting and educational. At the same time, however, there were also the middle-class audiences, who were quite happy with opera performed in English as entertainment.”
The establishment critics at the time were all Wagnerites, explained Preston, and their goal as critics was to teach Americans what “good” music was. And “good” music, in their collective opinion, was European music; “good” opera was German opera.
“They wanted Americans to stop thinking about opera as entertainment and start thinking about it as edification. But Abbott was thwarting their efforts, for she created a style of opera that the American public loved, and succeeding at it. But because she mounted the ‘wrong’ kind of opera—Italian and French opera translated into English – the critics considered her a total charlatan. In fact, she undercut what they were trying to do, so of course they turned on her.”
America’s musical heritage
Preston hopes to right some of the wrong done to Abbott’s reputation both in her lecture and in a forthcoming book about the English-language opera movement in America during this period.
Her lecture celebrates Abbott’s brilliant, self-made success and continues Abbott’s message that opera can be – and has been – for the people.
“Today we have no idea that the American middle class of the late nineteenth century was interested in opera performance,” Preston explained. “In reality, however, Americans like us regularly attended opera in the 1870s and ’80s and ’90 not because it was educational or edifying, but because it was entertaining. Think of it – the staging, costumes, beautiful singing – it was all spectacle. And Americans were attracted to it then in the same manner that Americans are attracted to it today – but of course now it is on the big screen courtesy of Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, and other cinematic spectacle-manufacturers.
“Things really haven’t changed that much. Most of us, however, don’t realize that opera was a major component of entertainment for regular Americans of the late 19th century. And I think that it is important to understand that aspect of our cultural and musical heritage.”