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- Chapters of Opera - 6/70 -

Burton's Theater; the Astor Place Opera House became the Mercantile Library. The Academy of Music is still known by that name, though it is given over chiefly to melodrama, and the educational purpose which existed in the minds of its creators was only a passing dream. The Metropolitan Opera House has housed twenty-three regular seasons of opera, though it has been in existence for twenty-five seasons. Once the sequence of subscription seasons was interrupted by the damage done to the theater by fire; once by the policy of its lessees, Abbey & Grau, who thought that the public appetite for opera might be whetted by enforced abstention. The Manhattan Opera House is too young to enter into this study of opera houses, their genesis, growth, and decay, and the houses which Mr. Oscar Hammerstein built before it in Harlem and in West Thirty-Fourth Street, near Sixth Avenue, lived too brief a time in operatic service to deserve more than mention.

I am at a loss for data from which to evolve a rule, as I should like to do, governing the length of an opera house's existence in its original estate as the home of grand opera.

The conditions which produce the need are too variable and also too vague to be brought under the operation of any kind of law. At present the growth of wealth, the increase in population, and with that increase the rapid multiplication of persons desirous and able to enjoy the privileges of social display would seem to be determining factors, with the mounting costliness of the luxury as a deterrent. The last illustration of the operation of the creative impulse based on the growth of wealth and social ambition is found in the building of the Metropolitan Opera House, Mr. Hammerstein's enterprise being purely individual and speculative. The movement which produced the Metropolitan Opera House marked the decay of the old Knickerbocker régime, and its amalgamation with the newer order of society of a quarter of a century ago. This social decay, if so it can be called without offense, began--if Abram C. Dayton ("Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York") is correct--about 1840, and culminated with the Vanderbilt ball, in 1882, to which nearly all the leaders of the old Knickerbocker aristocracy accepted invitations. "During the third quarter of the nineteenth century," said The Sun's reviewer of Mr. Dayton's book, "sagacious and far-sighted Knickerbockers began to realize that as a caste they no longer possessed sufficient money to sustain social ascendency, and that it behooved them to effect an intimate alliance with the nouveaux riches." To this may be added that when there were but two decades of the century left it was made plain that the Academy of Music could by no possibility accommodate the two classes of society, old and new, which had for a number of years been steadily approaching each other.

There was an insufficiency of desirable boxes, and holders of seats of fashion were unwilling to surrender them to the newcomers. So the Metropolitan Opera House was built in 1883, and the vigor of the social opposition, coupled with popular appreciation of the new spirit, which came in with the German régime, gave the deathblow to the Academy, whose loss to fashion was long deplored by the admirers of its fine acoustic qualities and its effective architectural arrangements for the purposes of display.

The period is not so remote that we cannot trace the influences of fashion and society in the rise of the first Italian Opera House, if not in its fall. The Park Theater was still a fashionable playhouse when Garcia gave his season of Italian opera in it in 1825-26, but within a decade thereafter the conditions so graphically described by Mr. White, combined with new ambitions, which seem to have been inspired to a large extent by Lorenzo Da Ponte, prompted a wish for a new theater: one specially adapted to opera. The new entertainment was recognized as a luxury, and it was no more than fitting that it be luxuriously and elegantly housed. It will be necessary to account for the potent influence of Da Ponte, who was only a superannuated poet and teacher of Italian language and literature, and this I hope to do presently; for the time being it is sufficient to say that it was he who persuaded the rich and cultured citizens of New York to build the Italian Opera House, which stood at the intersection of Church and Leonard streets. The coming of Garcia had filled Da Ponte, then already seventy-six years old, with dreams of a recrudescence of such activities as had been his in connection with Italian Opera in Vienna and London. He made haste to identify himself in an advisory capacity with the enterprise, persuaded Garcia to include "Don Giovanni" in his list of operas, although this necessitated the engagement of a singer not a member of the company, and had already brought his niece, who was a singer, from Italy, and the Italian composer Filippo Trajetta, from Philadelphia, when his dream of a permanent opera, for which he should write librettos, his friend compose music, and his niece sing, was dispelled by Garcia's departure for Mexico, and his subsequent return to Europe. For the next five years Da Ponte seems to have kept the waters of the operatic pool stirred, for there is general recognition in the records of the fact that to him was due the conception of the second experiment, although its execution was left to another, who was neither an American nor an Italian, but a Frenchman named Montressor. Like Garcia, he was his own tenor, which fact must have eased him of some of the vexations of management, though it added to its labors. We are told that Montressor succeeded in making himself personally popular. He had an agreeable voice, a tolerable style, and was favorably compared with Garcia, though this goes for little, inasmuch as Garcia was past his prime when he came here. Among his singers were Signorina Pedrotti, who created a great stir (though, I fancy, this was largely because of her beauty and the fact that the public, remembering the Signorina Garcia, wanted somebody to worship) and a basso named Fornasari.

Signorina Pedrotti effected her entrance on October 17, in a new opera, Mercadante's "Elisa e Claudio," which made the hit of the season, largely because of the infatuation of the public for the new singer. Mr. White gives us a description of her (from hearsay and the records) in his article published in The Century Magazine, of March, 1882:

Not much has been said of her, for she had sung only in Lisbon and in Bologna, and had little reputation. But she took musical New York off its feet again. She had a fine mezzo-soprano voice, of sympathetic quality; and although she was far from being a perfectly finished vocalist, she had an impressive dramatic style and a presence and a manner that enabled her to take possession of the stage. She was a handsome woman--tall, nobly formed, with brilliant eyes and a face full of expression. She carried the town by storm.

Like Malibran, and many another singer since, Fornasari made a fine reputation here, and was afterward "discovered" in Europe, where he rose to fame. He seems to have been of the tribe of lady-killers, of whom every opera company has boasted at least one ever since opera became a fashion--which is only another way of saying ever since it was invented. But Fornasari had a noble voice, besides his mere physical attractions. Mr. White, who saw him long years afterward, when he chanced to be passing through New York on his way to Europe, describes him: He was very tall; his head looked like that of a youthful Jove; dark hair in flaky curls, an open, blazing eye; a nose just heroically curved; lips strong, yet beautifully bowed; sweet and persuasive (one would think that White got his description from some woman--what man ever before or since was praised by a man for having a Cupid's bow mouth?), and withal a large and easy grace of manner.

Montressor's season opened on October 6, 1832, at the Richmond Hill Theater, which became respectable for the nonce, and collapsed after thirty-five representations. The receipts for the season were $25,603--let us say about half as much as a week's receipts at the Metropolitan Opera House to-day. The operas given were Rossini's "Cenerentola," "L'Italiana in Algieri"; Bellini's "Il Pirata," and Mercadante's "Elisa e Claudio," the last winning the largest measure of popularity. The chief good accomplished was the bringing to New York from Europe of several excellent orchestral players, who, after the failure of the enterprise, settled here, to the good of instrumental music and the next undertaking.

Why men embark in operatic management, or, rather, why they continue in it after they have failed, has always been an enigma. Once, pointing my argument with excerpts from the story of all the managers in London, from Handel's day down to the present, I tried to prove that the desire to manage an opera company was a form of disease, finding admirable support for my contention in the confession and conduct of that English manager who got himself into Fleet Prison, and thence philosophically urged not only that it served him right (since no man insane enough to want to be an operatic impresario ought to be allowed at large), but also that a jail was the only proper headquarters for a manager, since there, at least, he was secure from the importunities of singers and dancers. Lorenzo Da Ponte was, obviously, of the stuff of which impresarios are made. Montressor's failure, for which he was in a degree responsible (and which he discussed in two pamphlets which I found twenty years ago in the library of the New York Historical Society), persuaded him that the city's greatest need was an Italian opera house. His powers of persuasion must have been great, for he succeeded in bringing a body of citizens together who set the example which has been followed several times since, and built the Italian Opera House at Church and Leonard streets, on very much the same social and economic lines as prevail at the Metropolitan Opera House to-day. European models and European taste prevailed in the structure and its adornments. It was the first theater in the United States which boasted a tier composed exclusively of boxes. This was the second balcony. The parterre was entered from the first balcony, a circumstance which redeemed it from its old plebeian association as "the pit," in which it would have been indecorous for ladies to sit. The seats in the parterre were mahogany chairs upholstered in blue damask. The seats in the first balcony were mahogany sofas similarly upholstered. The box fronts had a white ground, with emblematic medallions, and octagonal panels of crimson, blue, and gold. Blue silk curtains were caught up with gilt cord and tassels. There was a chandelier of great splendor, which threw its light into a dome enriched with pictures of the Muses, painted, like all the rest of the interior, as well as the scenery, by artists specially brought over for the purpose from Europe. The floors were carpeted. The price of the boxes was $6,000 each, and subscribers might own them for a single performance (evidently by arrangement with the owners) or the season. Apropos of this, Mr. White tells a characteristic story:

It was told of a man who had suddenly risen to what was then great wealth, that, having taken a lady to the opera, he was met by the disappointing assurance that there were no seats to be had.

"What, nowhere?"

"Nowhere, sir; every seat in the house is taken, except, indeed, one of the private boxes that was not subscribed for."

"I'll have that."

"Impossible, sir. The boxes can only be occupied by subscribers and owners."

"What is the price of your box?"

"Six thousand dollars, sir."

"I'll take it."

And drawing out his pocketbook he filled up a check for six thousand dollars and escorted his lady to her seat to the surprise and, indeed,

Chapters of Opera - 6/70

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