True story: My great-great-aunt, Félicie Richard, sang in a few operas in the 1920s and 1930s. I have the programs for two of these operas, one from 1926 and one from 1935. The operas were in French (Les cloches de Corneville by R. Planquette and Mignon by A. Thomas, have you heard of them?) and they were put on by an opera company called Compagnie d’Opéra Ste Cécile (Saint Cecilia Opera Company). This was not a traveling troupe, nor a group from Europe. These performances were in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, built from and performed for the local Francophone community. (My great-great-aunt was from Belgium; French was her native language.) There’s a paper in here somewhere for me to write someday. But for now, think about this: what made it possible for a Francophone opera company to exist and perform in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1920s and 1930s? And how does that local opera-musicking relate to what was happening in the rest of the country?
If you’ve been following Kristen Turner’s discussion about opera on The Avid Listener, you may have been wondering when English-language opera gave way to the craze for opera in languages other than English. (See Kristen’s discussion of English-language touring opera troupes here.) In this week’s feature essay, Kristen tells us how and why foreign language opera began to dominate the stage after the Civil War. She also tackles the ever-important questions of why and how opera became music for “elite” audiences. (You can read Kristen’s take on opera as popular music here.),
Here’s a teaser: “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.”
Someday I’ll have more to say about the exploits of Compagnie d’Opéra Set Cécile. Maybe I’ll even write it for The Avid Listener. In the meantime, you can read Kristen’s latest essay here.
The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.