OPERA WHEN IT SIZZLES
By Suzanne Calvin
During these so-called “Dog Days of Summer,” when the temperature soars to triple digit heights of discomfort, it’s a good time to remember that American Opera had its origins in tropical places like Havana and New Orleans, as well as in the cooler climate of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Both cities were essentially Catholic and profoundly musical, both sat at the crossroads of diverse populations and cultural influences and – like the very early American Opera capitals in Mexico and Peru, where the first operas in the Americas were composed and performed more than 300 years ago – both communities saw opera as an integral part of the civic fabric.
The year that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, 1776, Havana (a city with a population of around 50 thousand) opened the Teatro Coliseo to host a variety of musical theater offerings. By 1801, a second opera theater had opened and within a decade there was an “official” Cuban opera company receiving regular government support. Although influenced by homegrown and Spanish elements like the tonadilla (a short operetta tackling contemporary stories about the underclass—much like the Italian verismo movement of the late 19th century), Havana opera theaters imported most of their principal singers from Italy and France. With a stable of stars and a large, highly professional orchestra, Havana produced as many as eighty performances a year, including works by the greatest opera composers of the day. In fact, Mozart’s Don Giovanni had its Havana premiere in 1818 – a good seven years before it debuted on the New York stage.
During the early 1830s when opera was still an American rarity, the people of New Orleans, already well-seasoned opera and theater goers, threw themselves into the construction of an opulent four-story opera house—then the largest in the U.S.—costing an almost unheard-of $350,000. Gold and ivory boxes (47 in the first tier) could be had for a thousand dollars per season. The jewel in the crown of this magnificent house (which would ultimately burn down, as they all seemed to in the pre-electrical era) was a two-ton glass chandelier, made in London and containing 175 gaslights and 23-thousand prisms. However, a ticket would only ensure you a seat; it was your personal conduct that ensured you would remain in it until curtain call.
Yes, long before Richard Wagner laid down the basic laws of modern audience behavior at Bayreuth, the management of the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans decreed: no smoking in the boxes or lobbies, hats off during the performance, no loud talking, no slaves or courtesans downstairs and no women in the front orchestra section, no rapping of walking sticks on the floors or furniture, and so forth.
“The Proprietor is determined to keep strict order in the establishment,” read the Opening Night program, “to put down, at every risk, every attempt to disturb the quiet and attention which ought always to be ascendant in a public assembly, but which is too often violated by ignorant…disorderly persons, who think…they may make as much noise as they please.” And don’t let the door hit you on the way out (I made that part up but, really, isn’t that the attitude on display?).
Despite overbearing impresarios, opera in New Orleans and Havana not only thrived but, by the 1840s, had found a way to escape the sizzling Gulf Coast/Caribbean summers by going on tour, where they made a little history of their own.
It was a French opera company from New Orleans that first performed Donizetti’s c in New York City, taking the Big Apple by storm. Only one of the composer’s operas had been performed in that part of the world and the company ended its successful 1843 Northeast engagement with another unfamiliar Donizetti work, Anna Bolena. The troupe, knowing a good thing when they saw it, returned in subsequent seasons to fan the ardor for French comic opera, in addition to presenting excellent productions of grandiose works by Auber and Meyerbeer that left sophisticated newspaper critics at a loss for words.
Coincidentally, just days after the original New Orleans tour left town, a group of Italian opera singers, en route to Havana Opera, arrived in New York City in time to profit from all the excitement. They sang Norma to wall-to-wall crowds, followed by additional bel canto works including Lucia di Lammermoor—a Havana favorite previously unknown to Eastern audiences. This no doubt inspired the Havana opera company to include New York in a subsequent summer tour. Praised by the New York Herald as the “most finished and excellent company that has ever visited this city,” the Havana Opera introduced more bel canto masterpieces to eager audiences, as well as Ernani and I Due Foscari by the practically unknown Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi.
In 1850, Havana conquered New York again with a jaw-dropping slate of crowd-pleasing programming: Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, L’elisir d’amore and La Favorite, along with the previously performed Verdi pieces and two new ones—Attila and Macbeth. A year later, they returned for the last time, performing these same works and a couple of new ones: Bellini’s I Puritani and Donizetti’s comic gem, Don Pasquale. Most importantly, over the course of these tours, the Caribbean-based company introduced New York audiences to something they had never before known: casts of uniformly strong, spectacular singers. The stage was set for opera as we know and appreciate it today, and for a host of great concert and recital tours, from Jenny Lind to Enrico Caruso to The Three Tenors.
So wherever you’ve gone to escape the oppressive summer heat, be thankful that outstanding southern opera companies looking for cold cash and sweet relief brought their innovation, artistry, and fearless repertory choices with them, to make opera one of the most thoroughly international American art forms from that day to this.
Suzanne Calvin is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, blogger and playwright who serves as Manager/Director of Media and PR for the Dallas Opera.