Opera in 19th Century

Opera in America’s past often conjures up old-fashioned, Victorian images of ample divas poised in extravagant settings. This larger than life musical genre elicits memories of a Tristan and Isolde singing their glorious love duet but too fat to embrace convincingly; an Aida richly costumed despite her slave status; foreign, legendary, half-forgotten names who reportedly sang exquisitely to create a “golden age;” and other similar associations that, by turn, may be comic, contradictory, or mysterious.

In America such images emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century. As one looks back through those one hundred years it becomes evident that styles and perspectives of the picture are ever shifting. During the decades following the Civil War, European stars of celebrity status along with orchestra members, chorus and scenery journeyed across the land in lavishly equipped trains to perform in large cities and more modest towns.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s smaller, less pretentious troupes traveling much less comfortably by wagon and river sang operas in English from New York to New Orleans. In the first quarter of the century less distinction was made between opera and other theater as stock companies performed operas by English composers, plays, and other “acts” all on the same evening’s bill. This is where our story starts.

Throughout the nineteenth century in this country, opera displayed a pattern that was in general analogous to that of opera in Europe in the eighteenth century. There Italian opera seria (serious opera), performed primarily by Italians in that language, had dominated courts and cities everywhere except in France. This was mainly because Italian musicians had better training, the most experience, the widest repertory, and unabashed enthusiasm for vigorously promoting themselves and their art. Similarly here as European works, at first by English and subsequently by Italian, French, and finally German composers, rose to dominate the musical scene, it was a case of experienced, well-trained performers who worked hard to advance themselves and their repertories.

Our strongest, most direct and specific cultural ties, for many years after our Revolution, were to England, so quite naturally we imported the works, music, performers, and practices of the British theater. In the first half of the 1700s London had successively seen George Frideric Handel’s operas and oratorios. The former were performed by Italian singers in Italian while the latter, very similar musically to the operas, had texts and performances in English.

Both helped popularize the Italian musical style Handel had learned in Italy in his youth. Meantime in the commercial theater The Beggar’s Opera (premiered 1728) with its popular songs, low-life characters, spicy dialogue, and biting satire aimed at local politicians, competed keenly with Handel’s sophisticated, if more staid, Italian operas. Next to their formal, glamorously aristocratic style this ballad opera, cobbled up with short popular songs, spoken parts and caustic wit, was viewed as a sort of frumpy, poor relative, unwelcome in one’s parlor, if popular with the hoi polloi. (Fiske, 1973).

After Handel’s death in 1759 Italian companies virtually controlled productions at London’s King’s Theater, which was frequented and supported by the aristocracy. (Petty, 1972). Works by well-known Italian composers of the day such as Cimarosa, Piccinni, Paisiello, and others were staged there and competed with the comic operas that English composers had started to produce and which the wider public enthusiastically patronized.

These English operas, following the model of The Beggar’s Opera, used spoken dialogue and short songs rather than the sung recitative and florid arias of Italian opera seria. British composers were not alone in pursuing this style, for in other European countries native musicians were producing similar works. As in London, these were usually judged inferior to the Italian style operas given at court.

In Vienna the idea of establishing a “national” theater took shape under Joseph II when he founded the National Singspiel, whose purpose was the promotion of home-grown German opera over Italian imports. Mozart wrote The Abduction from the Seraglio for that theater in 1782 during the same decade that he was composing his Italian-style Idomeneo, The Marriage of Figaro, and others.

American audiences at the turn of the century eagerly attended English comic operas in the Northeast, while equal fervor greeted the French opéra-comique productions staged in New Orleans, a small but strong enclave of French culture in the South. By mid-century Italian operas were gaining acceptance and after the Civil War other European works attained an exclusive, commanding position in our musical life, relegating opera in English to the hinterlands. Works by Americans were performed only in unusual circumstances and not accepted into the wider repertory. Only in the next century would American composers with a distinctive American style emerge to challenge European operatic authority.

English opera, in this “British” America of the Atlantic seaboard, is a term carrying special problems of terminology that covers a wide assortment of plays with music. (Virga, 1982). The number and variety of productions called operas, comic operas, ballad operas, pasticcios, afterpieces, and such, all with a distinctive amount of music, form a rich if confusing diversity that reflects a spectrum ranging from the naive to the sophisticated. The first two categories are rather general, but the last three, which will be discussed first, are a bit more specific. Two elements all types held in common were spoken dialogue and the flexibility to accommodate to changing performance conditions.

Ballad operas, such as The Beggar’s Opera, were primarily based on popular folk tunes with newly written words to adapt to the plot. Thus Polly’s song, “O what pain it is to part” sung when she must leave her Macheath, has its newly written words set to an older Scotch folk song, “Gin thou wert mine own thing.” Because the audience, of course, would know the folk tune and text, the song and its context might well take on added associations and meaning.

The libretto of The Beggar’s Opera dealt with questions of truth and justice, as it alluded to the immorality of prominent contemporary political figures such as Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and poked fun at some of the absurdities of Italian opera conventions such as the required happy ending. Macheath is miraculously reprieved at the end of The Beggar’s Opera just as the “deus ex machina” would appear to set things right in the final scene of an Italian opera seria. Thus the grimness of reality is denied. (Petty, 1972).

A pasticcio such as The Honest Yorkshire Man by Henry Carey, staged in New York in 1752, which opens with an Air by Signor Porpora,” attributes only a few songs to the “author,” Carey. Because Nicola Porpora was an internationally famous singer and composer, his “air” was chosen as an opener. This illustrates a common eighteenth-century practice in which works of famous musicians were borrowed and used as an attraction.

A composer “arranged” the opera by interspersing a few of his own pieces with that of well-known music by famous figures such as Handel, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, or others. Then the mixture was spiced up by a few judiciously placed folk tunes, and presto–a “pasticcio.” Before the copyright laws, this practice was accepted and common all over Europe. Moreover, one should remember that this period, unlike what followed, was not so concerned with either artistic unity–already achieved by the international character of eighteenth century musical style–or with a desire for strongly stamped originality, much more sought after in the Romantic age.

There were many types of “pasticcii.” An example of one that contains a fair amount of music by the arranging composer is Samuel Arnold The Castle of Andalusia, premiered in London in 1782. This typifies the English comic opera style of the period, offering familiar musical and theatrical features that look both forward and backward. It was this type of music that American audiences heard and became familiar with in theaters and at concerts. The Castle of Andalusia, which had been a great hit in London, was so well regarded that it was chosen to inaugurate Philadelphia’s prestigious New Theater and was staged sporadically in other cities for a number of years.

The characters, including bandits and members of the wealthy Spanish nobility, reflect a “romantic” aura as does the setting of mountain caves and castles in Spain. Although this scenic ambience foretells nineteenth century opera devices, the action does not. Rather it reflects the many inherited conventions of the eighteenth century. In Arnold’s libretto, by John O’Keeffe, a series of romantic mix-ups and threadbare comic situations comprise the plot.

Not until Act II, Scene 2, do the heroine and hero finally make contact amid a veritable maze of disguises, impersonations, and misunderstandings, comparable only to the excessive complexities of earlier Neapolitan comic opera. Emphasis is on the social divisions, wealth and pretensions of Spanish society, as well as issues of parental power and authority and filial obedience. The conflict pits youth against age’s authority, ambition and ostentation. True love wins, pretension is pricked, and justice is done as the social climbing parent repents the wrongs he has done his children.

Musically Act I is mainly Arnold, Act II mainly traditional tunes, and Act III Italian in style. The composers Arnold drew on, Piccinni, Galuppi, Pergolesi and Scarlatti, were all well known in the late eighteenth century, their music had had broad distribution, and their popularity was reliable as an attraction. Such selections, along with the beloved English, Scotch, and Irish folk songs, and the arranger’s own pieces, formed the structure of the English opera.

Other “arranged” operas could reveal even more varied choices of well-known selections. The point was to create an assured “hit.” If good singers were available, comic operas could be successfully staged, but how much of the original music was used and in what arrangements is difficult, if not impossible, to assess. Performances differed to a greater or lesser degree because of the reasons stated above.

Another category of English opera, the “afterpiece,” was generally short, one or two acts, and gave the evening’s end a good humored, optimistic feeling. William Shield’s 1783 Covent Garden hit, The Poor Soldier, a favorite of George Washington, had the versatility to adapt as a main work or an afterpiece, depending on how much was cut out, or added in. Perennially popular, it is a prime example of how works were altered.

While the eight songs published in Philadelphia prior to 1800 reflect its popularity, the thirteen known versions of the libretto, the four known versions of the score, and other musical variables reveal the enormous flexibility common in performance. (Shield & O’Keeffe, 1978) The success of The Poor Soldier was due primarily to its mix of patriotism, egalitarian ideals and popular folk songs. The simple plot with a village setting was easily transposed from England to America and the hero transformed from an English soldier into a brave patriot of the Revolution of 1776.

The libretto was by John O’Keeffe, who also wrote The Castle of Andalusia. Although popular in his day, time has not dealt kindly with O’Keeffe’s plays, which now seem banal and clichéd ridden. His, however, are not the worst examples of the low quality of stage works from the late eighteenth century that we inherited from England. Serious plays had generally tended to relinquish dramatic tension in favor of more sensational elements, while comedy had turned from satire, polished lines, and wit to slapstick.

The more general terms “opera” or “comic opera” were applied to many types of works, including those already discussed, but also those in which the music was written mainly by one composer. An example of the latter type is Stephen Storace, The Haunted Tower, premiered in London successfully in 1789 and first performed here in Charleston in 1793.

Storace, who studied in Naples, was probably the best trained and most talented English composer of his generation. He and his gifted sister Nancy, who created Susanna in the original production of Mozart Marriage of Figaro, were close friends of Mozart in Vienna. Nancy was, it has been surmised, the mistress of the Austrian Emperor and later became the long-term companion of famous English tenor John Braham who eventually came to this country. Storace achieved operatic success first in Vienna at the court and then in London’s commercial theaters. (Tambling, 1996).

Storace himself composed most of the music in The Haunted Tower rather than borrowing from others, although he did use two folk tunes and appropriated pieces from some of his own operas. The music in totality of conception and working-out is far closer to the Viennese Classical style of Mozart and Haydn than the simpler expression of Arnold and his contemporaries. The overture to The Haunted Tower has dramatic intensity and runs directly into the first act, thus breaking with contemporary custom that treated overtures as separate pieces not usually connected with what followed, a significant exception being Mozart Don Giovanni of 1787.

The ensembles, which are numerous and complex, advance the action rather than remaining static. Finally, because Storace wrote two of the main roles for established stars, his sister Nancy and Michael Kelly, and their vocal parts are quite demanding technically. Musically this is a sophisticated and substantial work. The period, which is the time of William the Conqueror (1066), and staging, with its tower haunted by a ghost that appears in armor, foreshadows the romantic ambience of nineteenth-century opera.

In sum, plays by British authors with interpolated music and songs that were staged by actors who could sing, but were not primarily vocalists, characterized English opera. These forerunners of the American musical theater, with their humorous, often satirical, topical texts, spoken dialogue, and easily remembered melodies, attracted audiences well into the nineteenth century. The music often used familiar folk songs or folk-like tunes, while accompaniments, usually consisting of strings and harpsichord, were simple. The engaging appeal of these operas remained undiminished by either their uneven quality or makeshift performances.

Additions of extra musical pieces between acts, or as afterpieces to longer works, assured an evening of the desired length and variety. In a few decades specialized performers in a “star” system that drew larger audiences would eclipse the actor singers of these stock companies. This happened first in the larger cities, but more slowly in smaller ones. (Tambling, 1996).

The exception to the dominance of English-style opera was New Orleans where, unlike the Northeast, the mother country was seen as France, and a substantial part of the population spoke French. In this mainly Latin-Catholic city an audience could see sporadic productions of French opera even before 1800. Little is known of these early productions, but by the turn of the century more information is available. Louisiana was not purchased from France until 1803 and not admitted as a state until 1812. By then French language opéra-comique with its unique style was comparatively well established and consistent, offering solid performances to enthusiastic audiences.


Fiske, R. (1973). English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press.

Petty, F. C. (1972). Italian Opera in London 1760-1800. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.

Shield, W., & O’Keeffe, J. (1978). The Poor Soldier, ed. William Brasmer and William Osborne. Madison, WI: A-R Editions Inc.

Tambling, J. (1996). Opera and the Culture of Fascism; New York: Clarendon Press.

Virga, P. H. (1982). The American Opera to 1790. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.

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