When I was a young music major in college
a few too many years ago, I went on a field trip with my voice studio. We hopped in a van and drove a few towns away to hear a traveling troupe perform Verdi’s La traviata. It wasn’t my first opera experience, but it was memorable: there was no orchestra–only a piano–and I don’t even think there was a full cast. Just enough singers to fill the principle roles (singing in English, not the original Italian), a piano, a few props, and Bob’s your uncle. I remember laughing during Violetta’s death scene; my reaction may or may not have been inappropriate. But to me, the piano reduction of Verdi’s score sounded ridiculous, and Violetta’s death took place to repeated oom-pa-pas. I was spoiled by my first opera experience at the Portland opera: there was a real elephant in Aida! Little did I know that stripped-down performances like the Verdi performance I attended were once more the norm than the exception.
Which brings us to this week’s essay, “America goes to the Opera” by Kristen M. Turner. Here’s a teaser: “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.”
Wait, what? Opera without scenery and costumes? No wigs? No breastplates? Yes. Opera wasn’t always so highfalutin, at least in the US. Kristen gives you the scoop in this essay about how US audiences experienced opera before the Civil War. If you love opera, you’ll find all of this background quite fascinating. If you’re not an opera fan, give this essay a try anyway. You may be surprised to learn that opera was once popular music in the US, enjoyed by diverse audiences in a variety of contexts. You can read the entire essay here.
In case you’re wondering what happened after the Civil War, well, stay tuned: Kristen has a 3rd essay on the way! In the meantime, next week we’ll feature an essay by Blake Howe called “Temperamental Differences.”
The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.