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- Chapters of Opera - 5/70 -

long established as to call itself native. Its career came to an end in 1848, when, like its predecessor and successor, it went up in flames and smoke.

Presently I shall tell about the houses which have been built in New York especially for operatic uses, but before then some attention ought to be given to several other old theaters which had connection with opera in one or another of its phases. One of these was the New York Theater, afterward called the Bowery, and known by that name till a comparatively recent date. The walls of this theater echoed first to the voice of Malibran, when put forth in the vernacular of the country of which fate seemed, for a time, to have decreed that she should remain a resident. This was immediately after the first season of Italian opera at the Park Theater. The New York Theater was then new, having been built in 1826. Malibran had begun the study of English in London before coming to New York with her father; and she continued her studies with a new energy and a new purpose after the departure of her father to Mexico had left her apparently stranded in New York with a bankrupt and good-for-nothing husband to support. She made her first essay in English opera with "The Devil's Bridge," and followed it up with "Love in a Village." English operas, whether of the ballad order or with original music, were constructed in principle on the lines of the German Singspiel and French opéra comique, all the dialogue being spoken; and Malibran's experience at the theater and Grace Church, coupled with her great social popularity, must have made a pretty good Englishwoman of her. "It is rather startling," says Mr. White, in the article already alluded to, "to think of the greatest prima donna, not only of her day, but of modern times--the most fascinating woman upon the stage in the first half of the nineteenth century--as singing the soprano parts of psalm tunes and chants in a small town then less known to the people of London and Paris and Vienna than Jeddo is now. Grace Church may well be pardoned for pride in a musical service upon the early years of which fell such a crown of glory, and which has since then been guided by taste not always unworthy of such a beginning." Malibran's performances at the New York Theater were successful and a source of profit, both to the manager and M. Malibran, to whom, it is said, a portion of the receipts were sent every night.

Three other theaters which were identified with opera more or less came into the field later, and by their names, at least, testified to the continued popularity which a famous English institution had won a century before, and which endured until that name could be applied to the places that bore it only on the "lucus a non lucendo" principle. These were the theaters of Richmond Hill, Niblo's, and Castle Garden. The Ranelagh Gardens, which John Jones opened in New York, in June, 1765, and the Vauxhall Gardens, opened by Mr. Samuel Francis, in June, 1769, were planned more or less after their English prototypes. Out-of-doors concerts were their chief musical features, fireworks their spectacular, while the serving of refreshments was relied on as the principal source of profit. Richmond Hill had in its palmy days been the villa home of Aaron Burr, and its fortunes followed the descending scale like those of its once illustrious master. Its site was the neighborhood of what is now the intersection of Varick and Charlton streets. After passing out of Burr's hands, but before his death, the park had become Richmond Hill Gardens, and the mansion the Richmond Hill Theater, both of somewhat shady reputation, which was temporarily rehabilitated by the response which the fashionable elements of the city's population made to an appeal made by a season of Italian opera, given in 1832. The relics of Niblo's Garden have disappeared as completely as those of Richmond Hill, but its site is still fresh in the memory of those whose theatrical experiences go back a quarter of a century. They must be old, however, who can recall enough verdure in the vicinity of Broadway and Prince Street to justify the name maintained by the theater to which for many years entrance was gained through a corridor of the Metropolitan Hotel. Three-quarters of a century ago Niblo's Garden was a reality. William Niblo, who built it and managed it with consummate cleverness, had been a successful coffee-house keeper downtown. Its theater opened refreshingly on one side into the garden (as the Terrace Garden Theater, at Third Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street does to-day), where one could eat a dish of ice cream or sip a sherry cobbler in luxurious shade, if such were his prompting, while play or pantomime went merrily on within. Writing of it in 1855 Max Maretzek, who, as manager of the Astor Place Opera House, had suffered from the rivalry of Niblo and his theater, said:

The Metropolitan Hotel, Niblo's Theater, stores and other buildings occupy the locality. Of the former garden nothing remains save the ice cream and drinking saloons attached to the theater. These take up literally as much room in the building as its stage does, and prove that its proprietor has not altogether overlooked the earlier vocation which laid the foundation of his fortune. The name by which he calls it has never changed. It was Niblo's Garden when loving couples ate their creams or drank their cobblers under the shadow of the trees. It is Niblo's Garden now, when it is turned into a simple theater and hedged in with houses. Nay, in the very bills which are circulated in the interior of the building during the performances you may find, or might shortly since have found, such an announcement as the following, appearing in large letters:

"Between the second and third acts"--or, possibly, it may run thus when opera is not in the ascendant--"after the conclusion of the first piece an intermission of twenty minutes takes place, for a promenade in the garden."

You will, I feel certain, admit that this is a marvelously delicate way of intimating to a gentleman who may feel "dry" (it is the right word, is it not?) that he will find the time to slake his thirst.

When he returns and his lady inquires where he has been he may reply, if he wills it:

"Promenading in the garden."

It is not plain from Mr. White's account whether or not his memory reached back to the veritable garden of Mr. Niblo, but his recollections of the theater were not jaundiced like those of Mr. Maretzek, but altogether amiable. Speaking of the performances of the Shireff, Seguin, and Wilson company of English opera singers, who came to New York in 1838, he says:

Miss Shireff afterward appeared at Niblo's Garden, which was on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, where the Metropolitan Hotel now stands. Here she performed in Auber's "Masked Ball" and other light operas (all, of course, in English), singing in a theater that was open on one side to the air; for Niblo's was a great place of summer entertainment. It was a great New York "institution" in its day--perhaps the greatest and most beneficent one of its sort that New York has ever known. It may be safely said that most of the elder generation of New Yorkers now living [this was written in 1881] have had at Niblo's Garden the greatest pleasure they have ever enjoyed in public. There were careless fun and easy jollity; there whole families would go at a moment's warning to hear this or that singer, but most of all, year after year, to see the Ravels--a family of pantomimists and dancers upon earth and air, who have given innocent, thoughtless, side-shaking, brain-clearing pleasure to more Americans than ever relaxed their sad, silent faces for any other performers. The price of admission here was fifty cents, no seats reserved; "first come, first served."

Last of all there was Castle Garden. Children of to-day can remember when it was still the immigrants' depot, which it had been for half a century. Tradition says that it was built to protect New York City from foreign invasion, not to harbor it; but as a fortress it must have suffered disarmament quite early in the nineteenth century. It is now an aquarium, and as such has returned to its secondary use, which was that of a place of entertainment. In 1830 and about that day it was a restaurant, but for the sale only of ice cream, lemonade, and cakes. You paid a shilling to go in--this to restrict the patronage to people of the right sort--and your ticket was redeemable on the inside in the innocent fluids and harmless solids aforementioned. A wooden bridge, flanked by floating bathhouses, connected the castle with the garden--i.e., Battery Park. North and east, in lower Broadway and Greenwich Street, were fashionable residences, whose occupants enjoyed the promenade under the trees, which was the proper enjoyment of the day, as much as their more numerous, but less fortunate fellow citizens. There balloons went up by day, and rockets and bombs by night, and there, too, the brave militia went on parade. To Mr. White we owe the preservation of a poetical description written by Frederick Cozzens in an imitation of Spenser's "Sir Clod His Undoinge":

With placket lined, with joyous heart he hies To where the Battery's Alleys, cool and greene, Amid disparted Rivers daintie lies With Fortresse brown and spacious Bridge betweene Two Baths, which there like panniers huge are seen: In shadie paths fair Dames and Maides there be With stalking Lovers basking in their eene, And solitary ones who scan the sea, Or list to vesper chimes of slumberous Trinity.

The operas performed in the first season of Italian opera in America by the Garcia troupe in the Park Theater 1825-1826, were "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," "Tancredi," "Il Turco in Italia," "La Cenerentola," and "Semiramide" by Rossini; "Don Giovanni" by Mozart; "L'Amante astuto" and "La Figlia del Aria" by Garcia.



The first opera house built in New York City opened its doors on November 18, 1833, and was the home of Italian Opera for two seasons; the second, built eleven years later, endured in the service for which it was designed four years; the third, which marked as big an advance on its immediate predecessor in comfort and elegance as the first had marked on the ramshackle Park Theater described by Richard Grant White, was the Astor Place Opera House, built in 1847, and the nominal home of the precious exotic five years.

The Astor Place Opera House in its external appearance is familiar enough to the memory of even young New Yorkers, though, unlike its successor, the Academy of Music, at Fourteenth Street and Irving Place, it did not long permit its tarnished glories to form the surroundings of the spoken drama after the opera's departure. The Academy of Music weathered the operatic tempests of almost an entire generation, counting from its opening night, in 1854, to the last night on which Colonel J. H. Mapleson was its lessee, in 1886, and omitting the expiring gasps which the Italian entertainment made under Signor Angelo, in October, 1886, under Italo Campanini, in April, 1888, and the final short spasm under the doughty Colonel in 1896. The first Italian Opera House (that was its name) became the National Theater; the second, which was known as Palmo's Opera House, when turned over to the spoken drama, became

Chapters of Opera - 5/70

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