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The Music of the Gilded Age (March 2021): Opera and Operetta

by John Druesedow

Opera and Operetta

Opera and operetta do not completely define the Gilded Age, but they are symbolic of the cultural activities of the very wealthy and the interests of many. In American Opera Elise Kirk provides a chronological discussion of the entire range of opera, and the first two parts of the book—covering, respectively, 1730–1915 and 1880–1960—together cover the span of the Gilded Age. The cult of Richard Wagner, which held sway over the Metropolitan Opera in the late nineteenth century, looms large. In chapter 7, “Wagnerism and the American Muse,” Kirk observes that “of all the forces that shaped the creative process of American opera composers as the century turned, none was quite as powerful as … Richard Wagner.” As discussed above, Wagner was easily the most prominent composer known to Americans during the Gilded Age. Edith Borroff’s American Operas: A Checklist provides the most complete list of “American operas”—by which Borroff means works by composers in residence in the United States when the works were written, not necessarily works written by native-born American composers. The numbers are impressive: some 4,000 titles by more than 2,000 composers. Katherine Preston covers English-language opera, a mostly overlooked area, in the special issue of American Music (discussed above).

In his outstanding Opera in America: A Cultural History, John Dizikes mentions the Astors, Belmonts, Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Goulds, all of whom were patrons of the arts and founders of world-renowned institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera. Detailed, interdisciplinary, and well illustrated, this book provides a wealth of information on Gilded Age matters. In the section titled “Act Three: Monopoly, 1863–1903,” Dizikes looks at the rise of operetta in the nineteenth century. Known by many names—light opera, opéra bouffe, comic opera, musical comedy, musical romance—operetta was for those who considered “grand opera” too grand, too serious, or too long (as in the case of Wagner). Gerald Bordman’s excellent American Operetta: From H. M. S. Pinafore to Sweeney Todd gives due consideration to the Gilded Age, in particular H. M. S. Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan’s great hit. (In chapter 1, “Beginnings,” Bordman provides a thorough discussion of names by which operetta was known.) 

In American Popular Stage Music, 1860–1880, Deane Root discusses foreign operettas in the United States as well as operettas of American origin. In the introduction, Root provides a rare map of Lower Manhattan, showing the location of dozens of mid- to late-nineteenth century theaters—e.g., the Academy of Music, Bryant’s Minstrel Hall, Laura Keene’s Varieties, Niblo’s Garden, and Tony Pastor’s Opera House. All were important centers of musical activity at the time, and this geographic information is not easily found elsewhere. Also valuable are appendixes of popular stage music works and of composers, arrangers, authors, and adaptors of those works. Root uses such descriptors as burlesque, fairy spectacle, comic opera, comic play, extravaganza, and play with music to describe these popular stage works, which typically involved a number of songs interspersed with spoken dialogue, sometimes woven into a coherent story line. Root identifies Charles Barras and Georges Jacobi’s The Black Crook (which ran from1866 to 1868), an important early stage work with music, as a “grand magical spectacular drama.”

Vaudeville, a variety-show genre derived from French sources, arose in the mid-1890s and continued well into the new century. Knapp’s The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (discussed above) looks at the importance of such work and devotes a chapter to early genres—minstrelsy, extravaganza, pantomime, burlesque, and vaudeville—and a chapter on American song that fueled these productions, including Tin Pan Alley.