Dominique-René de Lerma
On 24 July 1915, Musical America carried the following item -- entitled "How can we make opera an American institution?" -- by Dr. P. J. Grant, a music lover and journalist from Massachusetts who spent a number of years in Germany.
This Form of Art Must Have a Home Built by Direct Taxation or Popular Subscription—Project Would Have .Better Chance in Cities Where Women Voters Could Force the Issue—American Impresario Essential, Also Native Singers and Opera in English
Is opera practically possible in America? Yes and no.
Possible, if we regard music as one of life’s necessities—just as necessary as food and drink and clothing. Impossible if we are to look upon it, as unfortunately we have done in the past, as the luxury of the rich, a society function where Mrs. Railroad Magnate and Mrs. Porkpacker can sit well forward in their boxes and display their rich jewels to the admiring or envious gaze of two or three thousand of already arrived, nearly arrived or on the way-a society function from which 90 percent of the decent-minded American public are excluded—and I believe purposely so—by the preposterous prices charged.
Foreign Impresarios Detrimental
Opera will be impossible as long as it is not given in the language of the people. You cannot persuade the great American public to take an interest in what it does not understand.
At the present time society goes, not because it cares a red cent for opera, but because it regards it as a social duty, or because it wishes to see or be seen. It is a part of its social slavery, not an intellectual treat; not a great humanizing work which brings it into closer touch with its fellow man and the beautiful things of life.
As such opera is a degradation, not an uplifting. Can you wonder that the decent-minded American will have nothing to do with it? Has nothing for it but contempt? And therefore as far as he is concerned it is a failure—does not exist?
Is opera practically possible in America? I wish I could find a word strong and emphatic enough to express my abiding and absolute belief that it is. But before we can make it a success we must realize that the task ahead of us is not an easy one; in fact, it is a herculean one. It is a task that will require patience, more patience, and then some more.
And first there is a big obstacle which we must get out of the way; it is the word “art.” It is a word I am fast coming to hate, not because of the word itself but because of the people who use it. They have been so engrossed with the letter that they have entirely lost sight of the spirit. They have made of it a perverted holy of holies whose light is too dazzling for the eyes of the common people, within whose sanctuary their unholy feet must not tread. They have set themselves up as prophets, whereas they are nothing more than monumental asses whose stubborn hoofs bar the road to progress.
Music as Humanizing Force
Let us forget for the moment that music is an art. Let us try to look upon it as a great, big humanizing influence, an influence for better and holier things as necessary a part of life as food, drink and clothing and work. And let me say here that I have taken opera because it has the wider and more popular appeal.
But to get down to the practical side of the question. What must we do?
Well, before we can have opera we must provide it with a home, and that home must be the gift of the people either by direct taxation or popular subscription. It must not be the gift of a multimillionaire. Why not? Because from that moment the people’s interest in it is killed, or if they have any it is a resentful interest that bodes ill for the opera house’s success.
Personal Sense of Ownership
But if John Smith or Tom Brown has given up his dollar freely or by taxation it will be quite otherwise; proudly he will point it out to the stranger. “That’s our opera house; they soaked me a couple of dollars for it, so I suppose a few of the bricks belong to me. Guess I’ll have to go in some time and see what they’re doing in there.”
Can it be done? Well, let us see what they have done in Germany. There they have at least a hundred opera houses, most of them municipal and therefore built by public taxation. Let us take one of these as an example. The opera house at Cologne. I take Cologne because it is familiar to most American tourists. It has a population of about half a million and its opera house cost its people eight million marks, or nearly two million dollars.
System in Cologne
There for nine months of the year— not for three or four nights of the week but every night of those nine months—opera is given at prices ranging for the best seats from $1 to $2, according to the opera given. A seat in the gallery will cost you a quarter; if you have sturdy legs and don’t mind the standing—well, you can stand for 50 pfennings (12 cents).
Impossible, you say? How can they give good opera or pay their artists decent wages? My dear reader, I have lived several years in Germany. I have seen opera performances in most of its cities and I have never seen a really bad performance. Haven’t you the proof right here? Where do we get the artists for German opera if not from Germany?
As to the pay. The American tenor at Freiburg in Breisgau, a town of not quite 85,000 people, received a salary of $6,000 for a season of eight months. Not so bad, eh?
Opera Part of Normal Lives
You see opera in Germany is a normal part of the normal lives of normal people. They do not ask for the exotic any more than they would ask for caviar with every meal. They would see in the vocal pyrotechnics of Signor “Bullvoci” a blasphemy on art fit more for the monkey house than the stage of an artistic institution.
In Cologne I know one young American singer who was receiving a salary of 8000 marks ($2,000). The director of one of our American opera houses offered her a thousand less than she was receiving in Germany.
In Cologne the director (he is also the head of the municipal play house) is engaged for a period of three years. If he wishes to be re-engaged he must show results, and he can only show results by employing the best material. He is not influenced by the social set. He is not responsible to them but to the people. He can keep down the deficit in no other way.
Deficit of $150,000
In Cologne the deficit is usually about $150,000. The people pay this cheerfully and willingly because it is to them as much a municipal necessity as clean streets or a good police force.
You can go from busy, populous Cologne with its 500,000 souls to tiny Cottbus with its 50,000 and there you find one of the prettiest little opera houses you ever laid eyes on, with lounging room, billiard room and library for the use of the artists. “What,” you exclaim, “grand opera and a grand opera house in a town of 50,000 inhabitants? What are you trying to give us?” Well, if you don‘t believe me ask Walker, a young American basso who began his career there.
Germany is three-fourths the size of Texas. It has about three-fourths of our population and in wealth it does not begin to compare with us.
In Hands of People
Here opera is a failure (and I do not except the Metropolitan); there it is a success. Why? Because in Germany opera is in the hands of the people and is of the soul of the people.
When shall we make a beginning? Not in New York. I am forced to—and regret to—believe. I know that most New Yorkers look upon their city as the only thing worth considering and the rest of the country is a mere and a negligible item. Well, there are many intelligent Americans who look upon New York as the tail, and a very mangy one at that. They ask you what great movement for the betterment of the people ever had its birth here.
Women’s Clubs’ Opportunity
Of course it could be done if the organized Women’s Clubs took the matter in hand and went about it in the right way.
Personally I think it would have a much better chance in a city where the women have the right to vote and could force the issue. It could be a combination municipal opera and play house where opera could be given three nights of the week and a stock company could present plays the other three.
It is essentially necessary that the director be an American, one who has a heartfelt belief that the American artist of to-day, if only given the proper chance and encouragement, is the equal of any artist in the world. Our actors, our painters, our sculptors, are. Why not our opera singers?
Gain Offsets Loss
The opera must be given in English. I am perfectly willing to admit that it loses a great deal in translation; that the English language has not the smoothness of the French or liquidity of the Italian; but the loss will be far and away offset by the gain. The people will understand.
The majority of the singers must be American if not by birth at least by adoption. To meet the demands of the exotically inclined, the so-called great artists could be engaged for “guest” appearances.
Will it pay? In some ways immeasurably so. Financially I am afraid not, at least not at first. For the first three years we must expect a deficit, but we must have patience.
An Economic Advantage
Every step upward of our people means less money spent on jails, saloons and police. Every legitimate means of enjoyment withdrawn from the people, whether it be public music in the parks or public baths, means so much more time for illegitimate pleasures, and therefore an increase of crime, and increase of crime means an increase of city expenses.
A RESPONSE FROM 2015
Much has changed in a century. The idea of a seat at even any regional opera for $2 is now incomprehensible; a salary of $2,000 for the year is far below poverty today, but back in 1915 bread was not $2 a loaf and one could dine at the finest restaurant for less than that. This was written when the Metropolitan Opera was only a few decades old, and the stage as well as the pit was populated almost totally by imports from Europe. The image in America of opera being supported by socially prominent and wealthy women has remained, along with the blessings and half truths, but does not consider the students whose seating is not in the family circle or those others who are standing or manage to secure a place closer to the roof.
This was decades before Porgy and Bess, the works of Carlisle Floyd, Richard Rodgers, and particularly before West Side story, Troubled island, and The life and times of Malcolm X. A distinctly American musical theater evolved, partly due to the German Singspiel and, to a greater extent, the atavistic need for musical theater that is an historical fact from Africa. No need to translate these works into English; the composers started with the rhythms and implications of the language, while the French, Germans, British, and Russians had to adjust their music so it differed from the Italian.
But for the American opera goer to enjoy the works of Bizet, Wagner, and Tschaikovsky (Britten was no problem), they either had to endure the change in Klangideal with a translation, or admit that God's native tongue was not English. The translations that Ruth and Thomas Martin made of Mozart seemed to work quite well, but I would not wish for Isolde to be an Anglophone nor to hear L'enfant et les sortiléges in English!
During my 18 years in the pit with the Miami Opera Company, Salvatore Baccaloni was engaged for Gianni Schichi. While the rest of the cast sang their parts in English, he refused to give up the original Italian. In Baroque England, the arias remained in Italian, while the recitativi were sometimes translated for the linguistically handicapped.
There still remains the financial problem. If every seat is sold, there might very well be a significant budgetary shortcoming. Enter the jewellery-bedecked socialite, the corporations, the foundations. Where are the others, those who celebrate the ghetto they left behind, and those who provide millions to determine a political election, thereby hoping to eliminate the schedule impositions of the voter on election day? Many of these argue against big government (is that no longer of the people, by the people, and for the people?), who for now let alone such socialistic activities as free education, health issues, highways, police service, and social security. And now is the prospect that public education not stop with high school! Suggest to them, as Dr. Grant has done, that the theater should be added to this list, and European socialism is joined with liberalism as an anti-American blasphemic obscenity, calling for the revival of both Joseph McCarthy and Archie Bunker. I'll stick with Verdi and Bernstein.
Dominique-René de Lerma