“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick.
What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish.
Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music.
Where opera came from
Opera unites music, poetry, drama, and spectacle in the most elaborate and expensive of all art forms.
It started in Italy around 1600 as entertainment for the nobility. Its antecedents were primarily Renaissance entertainments for the nobility. They revived ancient Greek comedies, for example.
In other words, we could say opera descended from the very highest of highbrow culture. The masses never knew much about it.
Renaissance theaters lacked curtains. So to mark divisions between acts, producers of these entertainments devised the intermedio.
The comedies had five acts, so there were usually six intermedi, one before the play, one after, and four between the acts. At first, they simply served as a musical interlude with singing and dancing loosely connected by mythological theme.
Nobles often ordered comedies with intermedi for important occasions. Over time, the intermedi for these occasions became elaborate enough to overshadow the comedy. They featured both solo and choral singing, large instrumental ensembles, dancing, and elaborate stage machinery.
Beginning in the 1570s, a group of Florentine nobles now known as the Camerata formed to discuss ancient drama. They believed that the Greeks had sung all the plays. According to their research, Greek singing produced a much more powerful emotional effect on audiences than their own modern music.
The music of their time had what is known as a polyphonic texture. That is, several different melodic lines were sung or played at the same time. Members of the Camerata concluded that only a new kind of solo song could truly move an audience emotionally.
The typical solo song of their time still had a polyphonic accompaniment, perhaps on a lute. The Camerata advocated a simple chordal accompaniment, a texture known as monody. The notes and rhythms of the song matched the natural speech inflections of a good actor or orator.
A brief look at the history of Italian opera
We can think of an opera, then, as an intermedio with a plot and performed on its own, sung in this new monodic style. Jacopo Peri’s Daphne, performed in the home of the Camerata’s patron in 1598, is generally considered the first true opera. Little of the music still exists.
Peri supplied another opera, L’Euridice, for the wedding of King Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, which took place in 1600 in Florence.
Giulio Caccini, Peri’s bitter rival, wrote his own opera on the same text and rushed it to a publisher. Both versions survive, Peri’s the first performed and Caccini’s the first published.
Claudio Monteverdi, a much better composer than either of them, produced his first opera, Orfeo, for the court of Mantua in 1607. (Euridice was Orfeo’s wife.)
Opera remained an entertainment commissioned by individual noblemen until 1637, when the first public opera theater opened in Venice. Now, anyone with a ticket could attend operas.
No longer, then, could operas be produced according to the tastes of a single individual. Composers and other people involved in its creation had to appeal to a broader and more diverse taste,
Opera remained an exclusively aristocratic entertainment well into the 18th century. The middle class grew in size, wealth, and social influence until operatic theaters had to account for its taste. The Napoleonic wars all but ended the aristocracy’s ability to sponsor theaters.
Soon, a crassly commercial popular music industry rose to prominence and took over opera. Gioacchino Rossini and others began to cater to this mass taste. Musical connoisseurs despised their operas as lowbrow culture. A French critic in 1832 fumed that there were only two kinds of musicians: classicists and Rossinists.
So when and how did Americans start to regard Italian and equally despised French opera as highbrow culture?
Italian opera as popular music in America
Throughout most of the 19th century, Americans could see operatic performances in a variety of settings.
A wide segment of the public loved them, both connoisseurs who knew music well and the less sophisticated who only knew what they liked.
So-called English opera—Italian opera translated into English with spoken dialog replacing recitative—enjoyed great success in American theaters at least as early as the 1820s.
And not only in large cities. Traveling opera companies toured widely and took popular operas all over the country. Later, the agent for Jenny Lind’s American tour in 1850-1852 was none other than that paragon of lowbrow culture P.T. Barnum
Manuel Garcia’s opera company presented the first performances of Italian opera in Italian in New York in 1825.
Garcia worked closely with Rossini and created many roles for him. Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte lived in New York at the time and insisted on performances of Don Giovanni. Mozart’s symphonic music helped define highbrow culture at the time, but not his operas yet.
Typically the theaters performed other music between the acts of an opera. Operatic singers frequently interpolated popular songs into operas. In 1825, for example, the prima donna Maria Garcia (later famous in Europe as Maria Malibran) added “a favorite Scotch song” to the second act of Barber of Seville. The audience loved it so much that they demanded “encore.” So she sang “Home Sweet Home” for them.
Some operas became so widely known that they inspired parodies. Only six years after Bellini’s La Sonnambula premiered in Milan in 1831, it was well enough known in New York to inspire a parody called The Roof Scrambler. Similarly, in 1849 a piece called Herr Nanny spoofed Verdi’s Ernani (1844).
Operatic arias frequently appeared on concerts along with songs, chamber music, and orchestral or band selections. People also purchased sheet music of operatic selections to sing at home. By the end of the 19th century, nearly every town had a band. Operatic transcriptions occupied a prominent place in every band concert. Hand organs on street corners pumped them out, too.
Italian opera as exotic music in America
Music in a foreign language was an acquired taste, though. Even wealthy connoisseurs preferred to listen to words they could understand.
Unfortunately, the earliest attempts at a permanent Italian opera troupe in New York deliberately appealed to class division and snobbishness.
In 1831, a troupe led by Giacomo Montresor presented New York’s first full season of Italian Opera. It enjoyed critical success, but could not compete with the same pieces being performed in English in other theaters. After his second season, Montresor also took his troupe to Philadelphia, where it attracted large audiences but still lost money.
He was confident that, without the initial expense of moving his troupe to New York from Italy, he could make money. The Italian Opera Association in the City of New York was building a new Italian Opera House and decided to lease it to Vincenzo Rivafinoli instead of Montresor.
If the association thought Rivafinoli would be a more successful businessman, he sorely disappointed them. His company lasted only a year. The association itself deserves much of the blame, however. It decided to build its theater in an exclusive part of town and charge very high prices. It sought to make Italian opera an elite, highbrow pastime that would enhance the audience’s social prestige.
New York didn’t have enough rich residents that the association could afford to exclude the less well off. And the pretention offended basic American democratic principles. Instead of learning from its mistake, the association leased the theater to Antonio Porto with only slight decreases in prices.
After the collapse of Porto’s company, the association dissolved and most of New York’s best musicians moved to New Orleans, which had two commercially successful opera companies. Subsequent Italian opera companies in New York appealed to a broader audience.
Opera as highbrow culture in America
Still, connoisseurs increasingly rejected Italian opera in English. Italian is so much more singable than English.
Whether they understood Italian or not, they thought the music simply sounded better in Italian.
From the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, opera houses catered more and more to connoisseurs. And the connoisseurs tended to be wealthier than the better educated.
Cultural divisions became more apparent. The economic and social realities that sunk the fortunes of New York’s Italian Opera Association in the 1830s no longer existed fifty years later. Increasingly, the American public came to understand opera as a theatrical form in a foreign language, untouched by outside influences–highbrow culture.
The idea that opera was a higher art form that appealed to people with better taste grew to be accepted even by people who didn’t like opera (or for that matter, symphonic music) very much. Critics and audiences who considered opera as highbrow culture demanded purity in its presentation.
In 1900, the Metropolitan Opera in New York concluded its season with a formerly commonplace program. It presented acts from four different operas. The program appealed to people who simply wanted to listen to star singers singing familiar arias, but cared little for hearing any opera in its entirety.
W.J. Henderson, the music critic of the New York Times complained vigorously. The audience comprised (gasp) ignorant people who had never heard any of the operas. They got to hear the company’s most famous singers, who would otherwise not perform on the same evening, for the price of a single ticket.
Why, the Met probably made more money from such a bastardized performance than one of the city’s vaudeville houses. Horrors! It masqueraded as lowbrow culture and demeaned the entire art form.
Henderson’s view began to prevail. It turned the whole idea of opera from popular entertainment into something high and exalted that demanded an audience capable of appreciating it as such.
Opera in American popular culture today
Even now, we hear operatic excerpts in movies, on television commercials and shows like America’s Got Talent. Rock guitarist Jeff Beck played “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot on a tour.
I wrote about it several years ago in An unexpected crossover: a rock guitarist plays opera. It includes videos of Beck playing that piece and another beautiful piece not as nearly well known.
Given a chance, people still like music from Italian opera. They might even enjoy a performance of a full opera. That is, if they could get past the notion that the operatic world thinks they’re not worthy of attending.
Certainly, children have no trouble enjoying opera. Here’s a video of second graders learning to sing “The Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore and having a ball. When they grow up, maybe they won’t consider it highbrow culture. Maybe they won’t mind if other people know that they really like opera.
Highbrow / Lowbrow: the emergence of cultural hierarchy in America / Lawrence W. Levine (Harvard University Press, 1988).
A History of Western Music, 9th edition / J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014)
Opera on the road: traveling opera troupes in the United States, 1825-60 / Katherine K. Preston (University of Illinois Press, 1993)
Opera! So highbrow, amirite? / Linda Shaver-Gleason. Not Another Music History Cliché! July 27, 2016.
Rossini caricature. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Intermedio scene. Public domain
Orpheus. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, September 28 2006. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Clara Louise Kellogg. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Italian Opera House. Public domain from Digital New York City, Columbia University Archives
Metropolitan Opera House. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons