Opera in the 20th Century

October 28, 2004

October 29: Opera in America

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 8:34 PM | Link to this post

At Christopher Hapka's Web site, usopera.com, you can find lots of information on the history of opera in the United States. That history goes back farther and is more extensive than you might think, as you can see in Hapka's Timeline of American Opera, 1845–1995. For example, on September 27, 1855, George Frederick Bristow premiered his opera Rip Van Winkle at Niblo's Garden, in New York, "the first opera by an American composer on an American subject." In the same year, "the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull offers a prize of $1000 for the best original American opera on an American subject." At the time of his death in 1898, Bristow was at work on an opera on the life of Christopher Columbus.

Another major event, in 1893, was the Denver premiere of The Martyr, by Harry Lawrence Freeman, "the first known performance of an opera by an African-American composer." Scott Joplin's first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor, was premiered in St. Louis in 1903, but it has been lost. Joplin's opera Treemonisha, which takes place on a plantation run by freed slaves, was completed around 1907, with a piano-vocal score published in 1911. In spite of Joplin's efforts, the opera was not staged until 1975, at the Houston Grand Opera.

There were some major commercial successes that died out in popularity. Dublin-born Victor Herbert (1859–1924), most famous for the dozens of operettas he composed, such as Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland, composed an American Indian opera called Natoma, premiered by the Philadelphia-Chicago Opera Company on February 25, 1911. Horatio Parker (1863–1919) won a $10,000 prize in a competition sponsored by the Met for his opera Mona. It was premiered on March 14, 1912, but received only four performances. Howard Hanson (1896–1981) premiered his neo-Romantic opera Merry Mount to stunning success at the Met, receiving 50 curtain calls at the premiere on February 10, 1934.

In the same year, Virgil Thomson (1896–1989) premiered a rather different opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, to celebrate the opening of the Avery Memorial wing of the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, in Hartford, Conn. Working with the experimental expatriate author Gertrude Stein (see this excerpt of the libretto, Pigeons on the grass alas), Thomson completed the opera in Europe in 1928. An all-black cast premiered the opera, sponsored by a group called The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, in a production choreographed by Frederick Ashton and directed by the painter Maurice Grosser, who was Thomson's partner. The American hymn tunes that pervade the opera were familiar to Thomson from his upbringing in a Baptist church in Kansas City, Missouri. See these reviews of the premiere:Thomson and Stein's intriguing second opera, The Mother of Us All, on the life of activist Susan B. Anthony, was premiered on May 7, 1947, at Columbia University. (A scene from this opera was performed at the recital by young singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, reviewed at Ionarts on October 11.) Thomson's final opera, on the life of controversial Romantic poet Lord Byron, had its planned premiere at the Met cancelled. It was ultimately first performed at the Juilliard School in New York.

Other resources: