Opera in America
Although opera had been going strong in Europe since its debut in the 16th century, in turn-of-the-century America it was still the new kid on the block. Dramas composed of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment, overtures, and interludes, opera reached American shores in the era of vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and ragtime -- stiff competition. But New York high society had long been eager to experience this elegant European import firsthand, and America's first fully staged opera performance took place in New York in 1825. An Italian opera troupe was imported for the occasion, the premiere of Rossini's The Barber of Seville.
Newspapers reporting on the event were awed at the elaborate spectacle but agreed that opera was unlikely to appeal to the ordinary American, whose musical tastes ran toward simpler pleasures. Although the popular arias of Italian opera composers Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, and Giuseppe Verdi caught on immediately with American audiences, they were often recast as ballads sung in English. To the average American, opera's plots often seemed contrived, the foreign-language lyrics difficult to decipher. As predicted, opera became strongly identified with moneyed high society, the cultured elite, and the upwardly mobile. In general, the American public continued to prefer more down-to-earth musical entertainment sung in English, popular hymns, ballads, and folk tunes. Still, by the turn of the 20th century, opera had become a well-established part of the American musical repertoire, thanks primarily to the Metropolitan Opera, established by wealthy New Yorkers in 1883. Attendance at the opera had quickly become a social necessity for the city's upper class.
Those far from New York could get a taste of opera from the touring companies that crisscrossed the country. Willa Cather's first encounter with opera came in 1895 when, as a senior at the University of Nebraska, she saw the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Chicago. In one week she saw all five productions and left the city dazzled and addicted. Later, when Cather lived in Pittsburgh, where the Metropolitan Opera appeared in 1897 and 1900, she saw Richard Wagner's operas for the first time, which helped shape her ideas about art as a religious and spiritual discipline. Cather was not alone in her fascination with Wagner; the composer had an enormous female following during the years in which she was coming of age. Gilded Age women constrained by genteel breeding and decorum found a freedom in his passionate music that was unavailable elsewhere in their lives.
While living in New York City, Cather attended the Met whenever she could, even interviewing three of its stars -- Olive Fremstad, Geraldine Farrar, and Louise Homer -- for McClure's magazine. Cather believed that female opera singers achieved a power, freedom, creativity, and spotlight not available to women elsewhere in turn-of-the-century America, even in the writing profession. "American prima donnas of the future will look back upon your memory with pride and gratitude," wrote Cather to Lillian Nordica, a soprano known for Wagnerian roles at the Met. "You seem to embody all that is best in American womanhood."
Although Nordica was a native of Farmington, Maine, many of these singers were born in Europe, like Olive Fremstad, the soprano on whom Thea Kronborg is based. The Stockholm-born Fremstad had moved to a frontier settlement in Minnesota around the same time Cather arrived in Nebraska. At the age of 19, she moved to New York and found a voice teacher, supporting herself as an accompanist for his other students and as a soloist at St. Patrick's Cathedral. By 1893 she had saved enough money to study in Berlin with Lilli Lehmann, a great operatic soprano in her own right and first to sing the key Wagner roles of Isolde and Brünnhilde in the United States. After further study in Italy, work with the Cologne and Munich Operas, and successful turns in Wagner's operas at London's Covent Garden, Fremstad made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in November 1903 in Wagner's The Valkyrie. She appeared regularly at the Metropolitan for the next 11 seasons.
A seemingly ordinary woman, Fremstad transformed herself on stage into a radiant operatic personality. Cather was amazed that a humble girl raised in rural Minnesota could achieve success in such a specialized and competitive profession. "Here is a great and highly individual talent, unlike any that have gone before it. From the time [of her debut] on, we have watched the rise of this great artist, the rapid crystallization of ideas as definite, as significant, as profound as Wagner's own." Fremstad became best known for her impassioned portrayals of Wagner's heroines. Given her own interest in Wagner's aesthetic vision, Cather found a kindred spirit in Fremstad -- and the ideal artistic model for The Song of the Lark.
For young American singers attempting to launch a career during the early decades of the 20th century, the biggest obstacle was the lack of performance opportunities in their own country. Opportunities to sing anywhere but New York were limited, but it was still possible to perform with a touring troupe or establish a career in Boston and Chicago, where important companies would soon be established. Still, the Metropolitan always loomed as the ultimate, usually unattainable goal. Without that prestigious connection, it was impossible to give regular concerts, let alone break into the lucrative new medium of acoustic recordings, which brought emerging stars like Enrico Caruso to a wider, more general audience. The first major tenor to be widely recorded, Caruso became a household name even among those who never attended the opera.
Caruso was emblematic of the changes afoot in the opera world at the beginning of the 20th century. His predecessor at the Met, Jean de Reszke, was a genteel operatic tenor associated with the grand French historical operas that were popular with the elite in 1890s New York. Caruso, on the other hand, specialized in the newly fashionable verismo (realism) repertory. Coming on the heels of the large-scale musical dramas of Wagner and the Shakespeare-based works that closed Verdi's career, verismo works sought to tell stories based on ordinary life. Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème is a popular example of the style. Instead of showcasing a singer's spectacular vocal technique, these new operas featured juicy acting parts that required a new kind of singing actor to entrance audiences. Thus, dramatic stars like Olive Fremstad won their moment in the spotlight.
As the 20th century unfolded, opera would only become more popular in America. Homegrown composers like George Gershwin and Virgil Thomson tried their hand at the art form, composing modern masterpieces such as Porgy and Bess and Four Saints in Three Acts. Radio and then television brought opera to the masses, turning a once cloistered display into public performance. While opera's dominance on the world stage waxed and waned, its popularity in America was just beginning.
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