Republican Opera

— When middle-aged people talk about their early operagoings, their say consists in the main of how they once delighted in the voices of certain men and women. They will dwell upon the tenor of their day, and his singing of a particular song. They hear no such tenors now. The talk of the present generation, when in its turn it reaches middle age, will be another matter. To-day from parents and grandparents comes the lament for Mario and Malibran ; it is Lohengrin we shall remember forty years hence, as we vent our distaste for the new fashion likely to have come in by that time. To inquire or care what that fashion is going to be seems somewhat idle. Its season will fall due, and audiences will be ready to pay and listen, as they were ready for the operas of the past, that could fill a house once where they empty it now. Our concern is with the present, and what fills a house to-day in our towns. By ill-luck the galleries do not pay for the opera. They never have. Their contribution has at times gone near to keeping it alive, but mostly it has not; and the opera may be fairly viewed as an object of charity from its cradle. It cannot earn its own living, and has been kept out of the poorhouse by its friends. This seems to be the commonest fate of art in any shape that it has hitherto assumed. Art is a pensioner ; and emperors and popes and rich people in general have always looked out for it, while poor people in general have come in for the benefit. They look gratis at paintings for which Venice once paid out her ducats handsomely, and if it were needful there might be drawn a schedule showing that from Homer to Wagner art has oftenest been kept going by the long purses of its day. So to-day, the intricate form of art called opera flourishes under the protection of European governments, — least where least help is given to it, and most where it rests upon a firm annual subsidy. Owing to this support, the workingman in most German towns can pay something in the neighborhood of fifty cents, and enjoy himself listening to all the best operas there are. Had he to pay much more, he could not do it.

Whether this manner of spending money be sensible for us can certainly be discussed.

It is not to be denied that the conditions in our country are unlike the conditions of France or Germany. Americans are not so fond of music as are the people of those two nations; music is not one of their matters of course. But neither can it be denied that when a fair opera comes for a while to an American town, most of us go. Parquet and gallery are jammed with people. Since we live under a government as little paternal as we can make it, it is from the people as a community that help for a republican opera must come, — must come as from the modern patrons of art. The appeal has been made.

There has of late presented itself, and asked for help, this object novel to American charity, a plan laid purely for public diversion, — a National Opera Company, including players, singers, and dancers ; and the community has been invited to subscribe its thousands for the support of these people.

Now if any man or woman who has money to give away does not think with France and Germany that opera is a worthy object, such person will find no attempt in these remarks to win her or him over. It would take a longer talking to than there is space for ; and perhaps it is really his or her stern-minded ancestors to whom we should speak. The need of this sort of recreation to fill an evening for the hard-driven man will not seem so rational as it does to us, nor will our value of the ornamental because it is useful appear a wise one. If there is any one who feels that opera may be a worthy object, but that hospitals are a worthier one, and that all he can afford goes to them, there appears to be nothing to say against so true a feeling. But citizens have raised other objections, some of which admit of reason and exclude prejudice.

The American Opera Company gives a ballet that has been censured as indecent. Could those who find it so know how little attractive to an American audience is the ballet of the present, with its mechanical capers, and its ungainly women in short gauze, who imagine they are dancing, — doing the graceful thing of which the proper sort of human body is capable, — they would see that the “ indecency ” proves simply stupid, and that the ballet is on its last legs. They need not fear it; it is dying. A while ago, and the world produced great singers, vocalists of extraordinary range and agility. The mere beauty of singing carried to its uttermost pitch of development caused operas to be written exclusively to show it off. Now the singers of that stamp are gone, and with them their operas. The world is getting to like another kind of thing. So also a while ago were produced great dancers, and for their sakes La Sylphide and the whole class of pantomime ballets were elaborated. Now those dancers are gone ; and though there survives an impetus that still carries the form of their art along, its spring of life is dried up, and the ballet is fast becoming a mere spectacular massing of colors. Ballet is going to bore Americans. There has been objection upon another moral score. Some persons have thought ill of establishing opera in America, because they know of the unwholesome atmosphere that hovers continually behind the scenes of grand opera in Europe. They therefore conclude that the life which its employees live fosters vice, and they do not wish to see made indigenous a growth of immorality hitherto exotic. But they do not look far enough back for causes, when they think that this state of things is due to opera or to any other theatrical arrangement. It is the product of a civilization and a social code, and were every opera in Europe abolished to-morrow, it would merely continue somewhere else. Moreover, the people who have raised this objection fail to see that this community, in providing a company of chorus singers with an honest way of making their living by means of their natural gift of voice, thereby insures them a steady subsistence, likely to lead them clear of vice rather than into it. This point brings up another kind of objection.

Those who have had chances to observe the present tendencies of young women in this country say that a distaste for their natural lot in life seems to be what ails them. Whether the cause of this is a morbid desire for what they deem the genteel, or whether each one imagines herself to be an exceptional person, is no matter. It suffices to know that washing, cooking, ironing, and sewing are disregarded for the sake of playing upon the grand piano and similar accomplishments. That these girls may marry a man who cannot afford to keep a musical instrument and a household of servants does not influence, even if it occurs to them. They go to art schools and learn how to make little pictures, and they frequent conservatories until they have mastered a few of Beethoven’s sonatas. This folly destines them to discontent and misery ; for when their apprenticeship is over, nobody cares to hear them play, nobody would give them a penny for anything they could paint. This evil certainly exists, and those who struggle with it object to the American Opera Company’s having organized for its benefit a conservatory of music. They think that the numerous young women who have been led to dabble in art had better not have a new chance to make fools of themselves. But there is a difference at the root be tween what is here planned and what has already proved so useless and misleading. To teach a young woman how to play or paint, when she is to find no market for her wares, is certainly helping to make her life a failure. But the New York Conservatory itself provides the market. It is contrived for the very purpose of training people to sing in order that they may earn wages by singing in the organization that is waiting for them. It furnishes for the first time in this country an abiding opportunity by which a person with a voice can make that voice a means of support.

We come back to middle-aged people, and the singers they remember in the days of their youth. When they hear a performance of the American Opera Company, they listen in vain for the former style of music ; and they know very well that an attempt at The Barber of Seville or Semiramide, as things are now, would prove a painful experience for the audience. Very likely they found the rendering of The Huguenots something of that nature. But if they went to Martha, or The Flying Dutchman, or the second time of Lohengrin, they saw performances that by no means disgraced the performers. Of Lohengrin more will presently be said.

Complaints of the repertory have been heard, notwithstanding that it included one work I forget how much more than a century old, and one written since 1880.

Now, I take it that the work of art which is going to please people the longest is the one that needs the fewest accessories, because there is the less chance for thought and fashion to drift somewhere else. So a Greek sculptor, whose one resource was the human shape, has pleased the world with his statue for a number of centuries, for the reason that the human form divine has not changed since his chisel was at work. When the human form does change, people will not find his statue so beautiful. So the painter can please till men’s faces and the face of Nature become different. There is very old sweet music, too, that does not seem likely to die. All these creations of art use but one or two vehicles, — sound, color, or shape. But directly you are upon the stage, the accessories are multiplied, and once in opera you have reached probably the greatest number of them that art can use and remain art. There is the story, and stories get old-fashioned. Then there is the development of the story, and the telling of a story changes all the time. Sir Walter Scott would write the same Waverley in a different manner to-day. Then there is the music, and harmony has become richer and many of its strict old rules have been broken ; the orchestra of a hundred years ago would be a drop in the vast affair we listen to to-day. So it goes. These are merely the chief ingredients of opera ; but you have a host more of them, and each one weighs something, and the majority must suit the palate of the modern audience, or such audience will be bored. The plot will weary them, or the songs will seem too long, or the whole thing be tame, perhaps even absurd. Mozart’s Magic Flute contains immortal music, but it is a preposterous opera, and very few people know exactly what it is all about. We have come to care a great deal what an opera is about.

It appears, then, that no art so much as opera is at the mercy of the humor of the times. Now, owing to causes too many to be examined, even if such analysis could lead to anything but talk, the humor of the times has changed, and the young opera-goer cares more for the thing sung than he does for the singer. Unsupported stars fail more and more to impose upon the public. A general thorough level is what makes a representation draw and pay. With due deference to those who give a high price to hear the opera of Traviata performed by one person, because that person knows how to sing in the true old fashion, it is suggested that the present taste for an all-round performance is the more reasonable. Could a play of Shakespeare’s, for example, be looked at for the first time by a sensible person who had this problem set him : given a drama containing nineteen characters, how to act it with one man only? he would find it hard to pick out the part for his one man. I believe that the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out, and all the other parts respectably filled, would please its author and his public better than would Hamlet alone good, acting with a collection of dummies. Mr. Irving has won for himself extraordinary success ; yet it is not generally thought that his company contains either a Rachel or a Talma.

So with Mr. Thomas and his opera company. He gave the unusually difficult opera of Lohengrin so that the galleries shouted with applause at it. Was this performance without flaw? Not by any means. The warders on the castle trumpeted in the dawn with false and quavering notes. Some omissions were made in the concerted music that marred the full grandeur of the work: this notably at the end of the first act, which was taken much faster than it should be, according to its composer at least. But these details do not matter. A very large audience was stirred and delighted without the aid of a single great singer. When a gardener undertakes to make a display, he does not pick roses and geraniums off other people’s trees, and stick them in niggardly soil. He gets the bed ready, and puts in some unassuming-looking roots. Such is the plan of Mr. Thomas. He has begun at the right end, and got his orchestra and chorus and the best soloists that he may, and all this has pleased the public. It was a good thing to see the top galleries filled with people who were evidently enjoying themselves, and for very little money. This performance of Lohengrin is a final answer to some minor objections which I shall merely name: that the quality of American voices is too shallow for good music; that nothing operatic can be sung in English on account of our unmusical tongue; and that to understand what people are talking about in grand opera will never do in the world.

The success of the repertory that Mr. Thomas and his successors must choose will depend upon many things. It is prophesied that Wagner will prove ephemeral. It is certain that no one can tell how hard Wagner has hit the eternal nail on the head ; but he has surely hit the nail of the present completely, in spite of the unanswerable objections to him that we find upon paper. Monsieur Amiel sees but little merit in the Tannhäuser ; what he says in his book continually expresses the discomfort of a sensitive and intelligent mind, that feels slipping away from it the things it has been used to. Criticism from such a source is at best interesting nonsense. It is also prophesied that Lucia will return victorious, and more of its kind be written. In that case we shall see for the first time in the history of art a genuine return to a form that existed before certain things were discovered.

Mr. Thomas will feel the pulse of the public, and if he does it well the American Opera will have a repertory that we wish to hear, whether it be French, German, Italian, or something hitherto unknown. But with regard to his performances, it is undeniably true that to encourage in anything the best done so far is the only way to arrive at better still.