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- Chapters of Opera - 4/70 -


There may be other memories going back as far as Mrs. Howe's, but I very much doubt if there is another as lively as hers on any question connected with social life in New York fourscore years ago. Italian opera was quite as aristocratic when it made its American bow as it is now, and decidedly more exclusive. It is natural that memories of it should linger in Mrs. Howe's mind for the reason that the family to which she belonged moved in the circles to which the new form of entertainment made appeal. A memory of the incident which must have been even livelier than that of Mrs. Howe's, however, perished in 1906, when Manuel Garcia died in London, in his one hundred and first year, for he could say of the first American season of Italian opera what Æneas said of the siege of Troy, "All of which I saw, and some of which I was." Manuel Garcia was a son of the Manuel del Popolo Vicente Garcia, who brought the institution to our shores; he was a brother of our first prima donna, she who then was only the Signorina Garcia, but within a lustrum afterward was the great Malibran; and he sang in the first performance, on November 29, 1825, and probably in all the performances given between that date and August of the next year, when the elder Garcia departed, leaving the Signorina, as Mme. Malibran, aged but eighteen, to develop her powers in local theaters and as a chorister in Grace Church. Of this and other related things presently.

In the sometimes faulty and incomplete records of the American stage to which writers on musical history have hitherto been forced to repair, 1750 is set down as the natal year for English ballad opera in America. It is thought that it was in that year that "The Beggar's Opera" found its way to New York, after having, in all probability, been given by the same company of comedians in Philadelphia in the middle of the year preceding. But it is as little likely that these were the first performances of ballad operas on this side of the Atlantic as that the people of New York were oblivious of the nature of operatic music of the Italian type until Garcia's troupe came with Rossini's "Barber of Seville," in 1825. There are traces of ballad operas in America in the early decades of the eighteenth century, and there can exist no doubt at all that French and Italian operas were given in some form, perhaps, as a rule, in the adapted form which prevailed in the London theaters until far into the nineteenth century, before the year 1800, in the towns and cities of the Eastern seaboard, which were in most active communication with Great Britain, I quote from an article on the history of opera in the United States, written by me for the second edition of "Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians":

Among French works Rousseau's "Pygmalion" and "Devin du Village," Dalayrac's "Nina" and "L'Amant Statue," Monsigny's "Déserteur," Grétry's "Zémire et Azor," "Fausse Magie" and "Richard Coeur de Lion" and others, were known in Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York in the last decade of the eighteenth century. There were traces, too, of Pergolese's "Serva padrona," and it seems more than likely that an "opera in three acts," the text adapted by Colman, entitled "The Spanish Barber; or, The Futile Precaution," played in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, in 1794, was Paisiello's "Barbiere di Siviglia." From 1820 to about 1845 more than a score of the Italian, French, and German operas, which made up the staple of foreign repertories, were frequently performed by English singers. The earliest of these singers were members of the dramatic companies who introduced theatrical plays in the colonies. They went from London to Philadelphia, New York, Williamsburg (Va.), and Charleston (S. C.), but eventually established their strongest and most enduring foothold in New York.

Accepting the 1750 date as the earliest of unmistakable records for a performance of "The Beggar's Opera" in New York, the original home of opera here was the Nassau Street Theater--the first of two known by that name. It was a two-storied house, with high gables. Six wax lights were in front of the stage, and from the ceiling dangled a "barrel hoop," pierced by half a dozen nails on which were spiked as many candles. It is not necessary to take the descriptions of these early playhouses as baldly literal, nor as indicative of something like barbarism. The "barrel hoop" chandelier of the old theater in Nassau street was doubtless only a primitive form of the chandeliers which kept their vogue for nearly a century after the first comedians sang and acted at the Nassau Street Theater. Illuminating gas did not reach New York till 1823, and "a thousand candles" was put forth as an attractive feature at a concert in the American metropolis as late as 1845. "The Beggar's Opera" was only twenty years old when the comedians sent to the colonies by William Hallam, under the management of his brother, Lewis, produced it, yet the historic Covent Garden Theater, in which it first saw the stage lights (candles they were, too), would scarcely stand comparison with the most modest of the metropolitan theaters nowadays. Its audience-room was only fifty-four or fifty-five feet deep; there were no footlights, the stage being illuminated by four hoops of candles, over which a crown hung from the borders. The orchestra held only fifteen or twenty musicians, though it was in this house that Handel produced his operas and oratorios; the boxes "were flat in front and had twisted double branches for candles fastened to the plaster. There were pedestals on each side of the boards, with elaborately-painted figures of Tragedy and Comedy thereon." Hallam's actors went first to Williamsburg, Va., but were persuaded to change their home to New York in the summer of 1753, among other things by the promise that they would find a "very fine 'Playhouse Building'" here. Nevertheless, when Lewis Hallam came he found the fine playhouse unsatisfactory, and may be said to have inaugurated the habit or custom, or whatever it may be called, followed by so many managers since, of beginning his enterprise by erecting a new theater. The old one in Nassau Street was torn down, and a new one built on its site. It was promised that it should be "very fine, large, and commodious," and it was built between June and September, 1753; how fine, large, and commodious it was may, therefore, be imagined. A year later, the German Calvinists, wanting a place of worship, bought the theater, and New York was without a playhouse until a new one on Cruger's Wharf was built by David Douglass, who had married Lewis Hallam's widow, Hallam having died in Jamaica, in 1755. This was abandoned in turn, and Mr. Douglass built a second theater, this time in Chapel Street. It cost $1,625, and can scarcely have been either very roomy or very ornate. Such as it was, however, it was the home of the drama in all its forms, save possibly the ballad opera, until about 1765, and was the center around which a storm raged which culminated in a riot that wrecked it.

The successor of this unhappy institution was the John Street Theater, which was opened toward the close of the year 1767. There seems to have been a period of about fifteen years during which the musical drama was absent from the amusement lists, but this house echoed, like its earliest predecessors, to the strains of the ballad opera which "made Gay rich and Rich gay." "The Beggar's Opera" was preceded, however, by "Love in a Village," for which Dr. Arne wrote and compiled the music; and Bickerstaff's "Maid of the Mill" was also in the repertory. In 1774 it was officially recommended that all places of amusement be closed. Then followed the troublous times of the Revolution, and it was not until twelve years afterward--that is, till 1786--that English Opera resumed its sway. "Love in a Village" was revived, and it was followed by "Inkle and Yarico," an arrangement of Shakespeare's "Tempest," with Purcell's music, "No Song, No Supper," "Macbeth," with Locke's music, McNally's comic opera "Robin Hood," and other works of the same character; in fact, it may safely be said that few, if any, English operas, either with original music or music adapted from the ballad tunes of England, were heard in London without being speedily brought to New York and performed here. In the John Street Theater, too, they were listened to by George Washington, and the leader of the orchestra, a German named Pfeil, whose name was variously spelled Fyle, File, Files, and so on, produced that "President's March," the tune of which was destined to become associated with "Hail Columbia," to the words of which it was adapted by Joseph Hopkinson, of Philadelphia. On January 29, 1798, a new playhouse was opened. This was the Park Theater. A musical piece entitled "The Purse, or American Tar," was on the program of the opening performance, and for more than a score of years the Park Theater played an important rôle in local operatic history. For a long term English operas of both types held the stage, along with the drama in all its forms, but in 1819 an English adaptation of Rossini's "Barber of Seville"--the opera which opened the Italian régime six years later--was heard on its stage, and two years after that Henry Rowley Bishop's arrangement of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." At the close of the season of 1820 the Park Theater was destroyed by fire, to the great loss of its owners, one of whom was John Jacob Astor. On its site was erected the new Park Theater, which was the original home of Italian opera, performed in its original tongue, and in the Italian manner, though only a small minority of the performers were Italians by birth.

Garcia was a Spaniard, born in Seville. Richard Grant White, writing in The Century Magazine for March, 1882, calls him a "Spanish Hebrew," on what authority I am unable to guess. Not only was Manuel Garcia, the elder, a chorister in the Cathedral of Seville at the age of six, but it seems as likely as not that he came of a family of Spanish church musicians who had made their mark for more than fifty years before the father of Malibran was born. But it is a habit with some writers to find Hebrew blood in nearly all persons of genius.

The new Park Theater was looked upon as a magnificent playhouse in its day, and it is a pity that Mr. White, writing about it when it was a quarter of a century old, should have helped to spread the erroneous notion that it was quite unworthy of so elegant a form of entertainment as Garcia brought into it. It remained a fashionable house through all its career or at least for a long time after it gave refuge to the Italian muse, though it may not have been able to hold one of its candles to the first house built especially to house that muse eight years later. The barrel hoop of the first New York theater gave way to "three chandeliers and patent oil lamps, the chandeliers having thirty-five lights each." Mr. White's description of this house after it had seen about a quarter of a century's service is certainly uninviting. Its boxes were like pens for beasts. "Across them were stretched benches consisting of a mere board covered with faded red moreen, a narrower board, shoulder high, being stretched behind to serve for a back. But one seat on each of the three or four benches was without even this luxury, in order that the seat itself might be raised upon its hinges for people to pass in. These sybaritic inclosures were kept under lock and key by a fee-expecting creature, who was always half drunk, except when he was wholly drunk. The pit, which has in our modern theater become the parterre (or, as it is often strangely called, the parquet), the most desirable part of the house, was in the Park Theater hardly superior to that in which the Jacquerie of old stood upon the bare ground (par terre), and thus gave the place its French name. The floor was dirty and broken into holes; the seats were bare, backless benches. Women were never seen in the pit, and, although the excellence of the position (the best in the house) and the cheapness of admission (half a dollar) took gentlemen there, few went there who could afford to study comfort and luxury in their amusements. The place was pervaded with evil smells; and, not uncommonly, in the midst of a performance, rats ran out of the holes in the floor and across into the orchestra. This delectable place was approached by a long, underground passage, with bare, whitewashed walls, dimly lighted, except at a sort of booth, at which vile fluids and viler solids were sold. As to the house itself, it was the dingy abode of dreariness. The gallery was occupied by howling roughs, who might have taken lessons in behavior from the negroes who occupied a part of this tier, which was railed off for their particular use."

This was the first home of Italian opera, strictly speaking. It had long housed opera in the vernacular, and remained to serve as the fortress of the English forces when the first battles were fought between the champions of the foreign exotic and the entertainment which had been so


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