Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera

At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as Irish music had some time earlier.

Italian opera had been in and out of style in England for about a hundred years by that time. George Frideric Handel made his initial reputation there composing operas in Italian, but saw the audience for them disappear and began writing oratorios in English instead.

A second wave of interest began in the late 1760s, but waned again before the end of the century. Then, in 1806, English audiences heard their first Mozart opera and clamored for more. Performances in England of Rossini’s works began in 1818. Although many professional critics loved Mozart and bitterly disdained Rossini, the operas of both had great audience appeal.

Performances of opera in a foreign language met with opposition as well, though. When Henry Rowley Bishop became musical director at Covent Garden, he decided to adapt these foreign operas to English words, get rid of recitatives, and turn the arias to song-forms more familiar to English taste.

Bishop presented his version of The Barber of Seville in 1818. The Park Theatre in New York first performed it in 1819 and then each of the next five years. Therefore, the 1825 performances in Italian meant only that New York audiences could hear familiar music in an unfamiliar language. Every attempt to establish a permanent Italian opera theater failed sooner or later until well after the Civil War. Meanwhile, “English opera,” Italian operas adapted by Bishop and like-minded composers, enjoyed unbroken success.

American publication of arias from operas by Mozart and others with English words began as early as 1815. In the first installment of this series, I mentioned how Irish songs appealed to the American imagination because their origin as folk melodies gave them an exotic flavor and their words introduced texts in first person and a certain attractive sense of nostalgia.

Italian arias were exotic in a different way. Having been composed for virtuoso singers, they had very florid tunes, which the adapters pretty much left alone. Their original orchestral accompaniments transferred to the piano much better as arpeggiated figures than the traditional block chords.

In part because of the influence of Irish and Italian songs, Americans began to lose interest in the English pleasure garden songs that had dominated public performances and sheet music sales since colonial times.

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