Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-1860, by Katherine K. Preston; Opera in America: A Cultural History, by John Dizikes

October 1, 1993

Opera on the RoadOpera in AmericaOpera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60, by Katherine K. Preston. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. xvii + 479 pp. ISBN 0-252-01974-1.

Opera in America: A Cultural History, by John Dizikes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993. xii + 612 pp. ISBN 0-300-05496-3.

Two recent books on opera in the United States examine opera from a sociological point of view. There is almost no musical analysis in either book, but there are ample discussions of who made up the audience at a given time and place and what purposes going to the opera served for these audiences, as well as investigations of matters of social class and taste, demographics, architecture, and economics.

Katherine K. Preston's book, Opera on the Road, examines traveling English and Italian opera troupes in the United States (French and German troupes are excluded from the study) during the period 1825-60. She studies three types of itinerant troupes—troupes built around one or two star performers (Jane Shirreff and John Wilson are the stars she studies in detail), troupes which performed opera in Italian (Max Maretzek and his Astor-Place Opera Company are given a full chapter), and troupes which performed opera in English (the Pyne and Harrison English Opera Company is chosen as the prime example). These categories are convenient, but far from airtight, as Preston herself points out. Singers, at different times, might belong to one or another type of troupe. And while the English and Italian troupes sang in different languages, there was a considerable overlap in their repertories. La Sonnambula and Il Barbiere di Siviglia were warhorses with both Italian and English troupes. And while the Astor Place Opera Company (an Italian troupe) had in its 1851 repertory Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Semiramide, Bellini's Norma, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Parisina, and Verdi's Ernani, the Pyne and Harrison English Opera Company had in its 1855 repertory Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Cinderella, Bellini's La Sonnambula, and Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, among other works.

Preston amasses a great deal of evidence to prove two important points. First, a considerable amount of operatic activity took place in the U.S. in the antebellum period—and not just in the large cities on the East coast. For example, between November 1855 and May 1856, the intrepid Pyne and Harrison English Opera Company gave performances not only in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond, but also in Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Evansville, St. Louis, Cairo, Memphis, Natchez, Mobile, and New Orleans. During that tour they often found that they were just preceding or just following other itinerant troupes in the same city. Second, in much of the antebellum period, opera was a democratic entertainment, not a cultural adornment for a limited few. In her chapter on Jane Shirreff and John Wilson, Preston notes that "disgruntled drama critics used the increasing popularity of opera as incontrovertible evidence of degraded public taste" (p. 75). In her chapter on Italian opera companies she addresses the complex story of "how the wealthy undertook the task of transforming opera from an ordinary component of the popular theater repertory into an art form widely identified as aristocratic and exclusive" (p. 100).

Despite the risks of illness (both John Wilson and Giuseppe de Begnis died of cholera while touring the U.S.) and the perils connected with travel by stagecoach, railroad, and steamboat, itinerant companies performed schedules—sometimes five different operas in a week—that would be hardly conceivable today. Preston's book inspires in the reader a respect bordering on awe for the perseverance, determination, courage, and resourcefulness of the troupes she describes.

John Dizikes' Opera in America: A Cultural History takes on all of opera in America, 1753 to the present, using a fairly broad definition of opera at that, including musical comedy, which he dubs "New York Opera," and minstrel shows. Dizikes claims that his definition of opera "is that of its Italian originators, drama by means of music" (p. xi). But as his lively narrative progresses it becomes clear that he does not distinguish between drama through music (opera), drama with music (musical comedy), and music on stage with no consistent narrative thread (minstrel shows).

With such a broad subject, Dizikes takes the liberty of writing about what interests or entertains him the most, and his enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. What engages Dizikes' interest most of all is singers—Malibran, Lind, Alboni, Sontag, Mario, Grisi, Patti, Nordica, Caruso, Farrar, Flagstad, Anderson, and Callas all receive extensive, colorful treatment. Moreover, Dizikes treats his already broad subject discursively, glancing along the way at various artists and writers (he is particularly fond of Wait Whitman), a treatment which may delight some readers and distress others. For example, after discussing the first performance of Rossini's Otello in New York (1826), Dizikes comments, "In the dawn of American romanticism, in the countryside soon to be made famous by the Hudson River painters, this music drama touched deep feelings of the terrible and the sublime (p. 10). My first reaction to this sentence was that I had never thought of connecting the first performances of Italian opera in New York with the Hudson River painters, but my next thought was, what is the connection—or is the author even saying that such a connection exists?

Dizikes tells the story of opera in America in 47 chapters, grouped chronologically into six "Acts," plus five Interludes and a Finale. Some of these chapters present local history—opera in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. One of the most informative chapters, to my mind, was "Local Glories," dealing with the growth of opera houses (and only sometimes of opera performances) across the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century. Every chapter has its share of fascinating facts and arresting anecdotes as, for example, that Enrico Caruso was his parents' eighteenth child and "all the previous seventeen children died in childbirth or in infancy" (p. 395). Unfortunately, many chapters also serve up unsustainable generalizations ("For two centuries, opera meant Italian opera") and arbitrary choices (no mention of Pavarotti, Domingo, or Carreras). The book is in some ways similar to an overedited musical textinsightful but unreliable. One's trust is further eroded by the author's curious manner of citing sources: frequently quotation marks are placed around sentences, but the author does not tell where the quotation comes from.

The history of opera in America is one of occasional artistic successes and frequent financial failures. Both Preston and Dizikes give ample evidence that artistic quality was often one of the least important variables in determining the success of an operatic troupe or establishment. To keep an itinerant opera touring company afloat, a manager needed skills as a publicist, a logistician, and a labor negotiator; Preston's discussion of the abilities of Max Maretzek are revealing in this respect. The success of a resident opera company, on the other hand, depended on securing a sufficiently large, wealthy, and loyal audience. Decisions about repertory played some role in this, but so did financial considerations, such as the price of tickets, and seating arrangements. It sometimes appeared that opera companies rose and fell around the vexing issue of boxes—whether or not to have them, sell them, lease them, and so on. Dizikes' narrative of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York or the Lyric Opera in Chicago illustrate some of these complexities. I think both authors may be on the wrong track when they seek for particularly American reasons for the failure of opera in a given city at a given time. In all times and places, in the U. S. and in Europe, opera has been a high-risk financial speculation.

These two books, similar though they are in subject and sociological approach, are quite different in style and tone. Preston's book is a scholarly study and Dizikes' is written "for literate common readers, not for specialists." More than one quarter of Preston's book is given over to appendices, notes and bibliography, while notes and bibliography take up only about 6% of Dizikes' book. Preston's prose style is always clear while sometimes a bit dry, whereas Dizikes' style is juicy but often overripe. He is fearless in his use of superlatives. For example, in the space of a few pages we meet "the most influential of modernist composers," "the most discussed American opera for half a century," and "the greatest Italian operatic conductor of the mid-twentieth century." (Do you agree with Dizikes that these are John Cage, Nixon in China, and Tullio Serafin?)

A more striking difference is the manner in which the two authors use sources. Preston's book is scrupulously researched. That she has found and perused acres of newspaper reviews, diaries, playbills, and librettos is in itself admirable. But even better is the healthy skepticism with which she treats her primary sources. She recognizes that critics, then as now, can do no more than report from their own limited points of view. To enjoy Dizikes' book fully one has to let go of certain scholarly scruples, such as expecting the author to use good sources or to separate fact from opinion. I am not convinced that the author's declaration that this is not a book meant for experts relieves him of responsibility for accuracy. In thinking of classroom applications, one can recommend Opera on the Road without reservation as a model of its kind of scholarship. On the other hand, Opera in America could be useful both for kindling a student's interest in opera or for stocking a professor's repertoire of intriguing anecdotes.


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