This month marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, which had tremendous impact on American music. Clara Louise Kellogg, the first American-born singer to achieve success in Europe, began her career shortly before the war broke out. Before she could have any hope of success abroad, she had to be successful at home. Of course, the war made that difficult.
Kellogg was born in Sumterville, South Carolina in 1842, but her parents moved to Derby, Connecticut later that year. Once her musical talent became evident, the family moved to New York City so she could receive a proper education. After joining a touring operatic company, she made her debut in New York as Gilda in Rigoletto on February 26, 1861. The opera company in New York kept her happily busy for several weeks. Then war broke out in April.
Although Italian opera had been performed in New York since 1825, it had never had a financially stable opera company. Impressario Max Maretzek had already had many artistic successes and financial setbacks in New York, and the war certainly did not make his task any easier. The public was so absorbed with news of the war that it lost interest in the theater, and especially Italian opera.
In her memoir, Kellogg observed that Maretzek was “so obstinate that he simply did not know how to give up a project merely because it was impossible.” If New York audiences stopped attending one opera (La sonnambula), perhaps Philadelphia audiences would be interested in another (Un ballo in maschera). It didn’t work. Perhaps it’s just as well Maretzek didn’t know how to give up. His company succeeded greatly with La figlia del reggimento first in Baltimore, then in Washington.
La figlia del reggimento caught on for several reasons. It is a military opera, and therefore very much in tune with the national mood. It is also very light-hearted and diverting. Neither of those would have saved the production if the company had been unwilling to sacrifice artistic details. “For example,” Kellogg wrote, “we were barbarous enough to put in sundry American national airs, and we had the assistance of real Zouaves to lend colour.”
Somehow the company managed to survive throughout the war. Near the end of the war, it even mounted the American premiere of Gounod’s Faust, with Kellogg singing the role of Marguerite. In 1867 she made her English debut in that role and enjoyed success in London for a year. She divided the rest of her career between the United States and Europe (performing also in Austria and Russia.) She retired from her illustrious career in 1887, a career she never could have had if she had not been able to overcome the Civil War years.