The Grand Opera Fad by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Without being more curious than my neighbors, there are several social mysteries that I should like to fathom, among others, the real reasons that induce the different classes of people one sees at the opera to attend that form of entertainment.

A taste for the theatre is natural enough. It is also easy to understand why people who are fond of sport and animals enjoy races and dog shows. But the continued vogue of grand opera, and more especially of Wagner’s long-drawn-out compositions, among our restless, unmusical compatriots, remains unexplained.

The sheeplike docility of our public is apparent in numberless ways; in none, however, more strikingly than in their choice of amusements. In business and religion, people occasionally think for themselves; in the selection of entertainments, never! but are apparently content to receive their opinions and prejudices ready-made from some unseen and omnipotent Areopagus.

The careful study of an opera audience from different parts of our auditorium has brought me to the conclusion that the public there may be loosely divided into three classes-leaving out reporters of fashionable intelligence, dressmakers in search of ideas, and the lady inhabitants of “Crank Alley” (as a certain corner of the orchestra is called), who sit in perpetual adoration before the elderly tenor.

First-but before venturing further on dangerously thin ice, it may be as well to suggest that this subject is not treated in absolute seriousness, and that all assertions must not be taken au pied de la lettre. First, then, and most important, come the stockholders, for without them the Metropolitan would close. The majority of these fortunate people and their guests look upon the opera as a social function, where one can meet one’s friends and be seen, an entertaining antechamber in which to linger until it’s time to “go on,” her Box being to-day as necessary a part of a great lady’s outfit as a country house or a ball-room.

Second are those who attend because it has become the correct thing to be seen at the opera. There is so much wealth in this city and so little opportunity for its display, so many people long to go about who are asked nowhere, that the opera has been seized upon as a centre in which to air rich apparel and elbow the “world.” This list fills a large part of the closely packed parquet and first balcony.

Third, and last, come the lovers of music, who mostly inhabit greater altitudes.

The motive of the typical box-owner is simple. Her night at the opera is the excuse for a cosy little dinner, one woman friend (two would spoil the effect of the box) and four men, without counting the husband, who appears at dinner, but rarely goes further. The pleasant meal and the subsequent smoke are prolonged until 9 or 9.30, when the men are finally dragged murmuring from their cigars. If she has been fortunate and timed her arrival to correspond with an entr’acte, my lady is radiant. The lights are up, she can see who are present, and the public can inspect her toilet and jewels as she settles herself under the combined gaze of the house, and proceeds to hold an informal reception for the rest of the evening. The men she has brought with her quickly cede their places to callers, and wander yawning in the lobby or invade the neighboring boxes and add their voices to the general murmur.

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Although there is much less talking than formerly, it is the toleration of this custom at all by the public that indicates (along with many other straws) that we are not a music-loving people. Audible conversation during a performance would not be allowed for a moment by a Continental audience. The little visiting that takes place in boxes abroad is done during the entr’actes, when people retire to the salons back of their loges to eat ices and chat. Here those little parlors are turned into cloak-rooms, and small talk goes on in many boxes during the entire performance. The joke or scandal of the day is discussed; strangers in town, or literary and artistic lights-“freaks,” they are discriminatingly called-are pointed out, toilets passed in review, and those dreadful two hours passed which, for some undiscovered reason, must elapse between a dinner and a dance. If a favorite tenor is singing, and no one happens to be whispering nonsense over her shoulder, my lady may listen in a distrait way. It is not safe, however, to count on prolonged attention or ask her questions about the performance. She is apt to be a bit hazy as to who is singing, and with the exception of Faust and Carmen, has rudimentary ideas about plots. Singers come and go, weep, swoon, or are killed, without interfering with her equanimity. She has, for instance, seen the Huguenots and the Rheingold dozens of times, but knows no more why Raoul is brought blindfolded to Chenonceaux, or what Wotan and Erda say to each other in their interminable scenes, than she does of the contents of the Vedas. For the matter of that, if three or four principal airs were suppressed from an opera and the scenery and costumes changed, many in that chattering circle would, I fear, not know what they were listening to.

Last winter, when Melba sang in Aida, disguised by dark hair and a brown skin, a lady near me vouchsafed the opinion that the “little black woman hadn’t a bad voice;” a gentleman (to whom I remarked last week “that as Sembrich had sung Rosina in the Barber, it was rather a shock to see her appear as that lady’s servant in the Mariage de Figaro”) looked his blank amazement until it was explained to him that one of those operas was a continuation of the other. After a pause he remarked, “They are not by the same composer, anyway! Because the first’s by Rossini, and the Mariage is by Bon Marché. I’ve been at his shop in Paris.”

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The presence of the second category-the would-be fashionable people-is not so easily accounted for. Their attendance can hardly be attributed to love of melody, as they are, if anything, a shade less musical than the box-dwellers, who, by the bye, seem to exercise an irresistible fascination, to judge by the trend of conversation and direction of glasses. Although an imposing and sufficiently attentive throng, it would be difficult to find a less discriminating public than that which gathers nightly in the Metropolitan parterre. One wonders how many of those people care for music and how many attend because it is expensive and “swell.”

They will listen with the same bland contentment to either bad or good performances so long as a world-renowned artist (some one who is being paid a comfortable little fortune for the evening) is on the stage. The orchestra may be badly led (it often is); the singers may flat-or be out of voice; the performance may go all at sixes and sevens-there is never a murmur of dissent. Faults that would set an entire audience at Naples or Milan hissing are accepted herewith ignorant approval.

The unfortunate part of it is that this weakness of ours has become known. The singers feel they can give an American audience any slipshod performance. I have seen a favorite soprano shrug her shoulders as she entered her dressing-room and exclaim: “Mon Dieu! How I shuffled through that act! They’d have hooted me off the stage in Berlin, but here no one seems to care. Did you notice the baritone to-night? He wasn’t on the key once during our duo. I cannot sing my best, try as I will, when I hear the public applauding good and bad alike!”

It is strange that our pleasure-loving rich people should have hit on the opera as a favorite haunt. We and the English are the only race who will attend performances in a foreign language which we don’t understand. How can intelligent people who don’t care for music go on, season after season, listening to operas, the plots of which they ignore, and which in their hearts they find dull?

Is it so very amusing to watch two middle-aged ladies nagging each other, at two o’clock in the morning, on a public square, as they do in Lohengrin? Do people find the lecture that Isolde’s husband delivers to the guilty lovers entertaining? Does an opera produce any illusion on my neighbors? I wish it did on me! I see too plainly the paint on the singers’ hot faces and the cords straining in their tired throats! I sit on certain nights in agony, fearing to see stout Romeo roll on the stage in apoplexy! The sopranos, too, have a way, when about to emit a roulade, that is more suggestive of a dentist’s chair, and the attendant gargle, than of a love phrase.

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When two celebrities combine in a final duo, facing the public and not each other, they give the impression of victims whom an unseen inquisitor is torturing. Each turn of his screw draws out a wilder cry. The orchestra (in the pay of the demon) does all it can to prevent their shrieks from reaching the public. The lovers in turn redouble their efforts; they are purple in the face and glistening with perspiration. Defeat, they know, is before them, for the orchestra has the greater staying power! The flutes bleat; the trombones grunt; the fiddles squeal; an epileptic leader cuts wildly into the air about him. When, finally, their strength exhausted, the breathless human beings, with one last ear-piercing note, give up the struggle and retire, the public, excited by the unequal contest, bursts into thunders of applause.

Why wouldn’t it be a good idea, in order to avoid these painful exhibitions, to have an arrangement of screens, with the singing people behind and a company of young and attractive pantomimists going through the gestures and movements in front? Otherwise, how can the most imaginative natures lose themselves at an opera? Even when the singers are comely, there is always that eternal double row of stony-faced witnesses in full view, whom no crimes astonish and no misfortunes melt. It takes most of the poetry out of Faust’s first words with Marguerite, to have that short interview interrupted by a line of old, weary women shouting, “Let us whirl in the waltz o’er the mount and the plain!” Or when Scotch Lucy appears in a smart tea-gown and is good enough to perform difficult exercises before a half-circle of Italian gentlemen in pantalets and ladies in court costumes, does she give any one the illusion of an abandoned wife dying of a broken heart alone in the Highlands? Broken heart, indeed! It’s much more likely she’ll die of a ruptured blood-vessel!

Philistines in matters musical, like myself, unfortunate mortals whom the sweetest sounds fail to enthrall when connected with no memory or idea, or when prolonged beyond a limited period, must approach the third group with hesitation and awe. That they are sincere, is evident. The rapt expressions of their faces, and their patience, bear testimony to this fact. For a long time I asked myself, “Where have I seen that intense, absorbed attitude before?” Suddenly one evening another scene rose in my memory.

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Have you ever visited Tangiers? In the market-place of that city you will find the inhabitants crouched by hundreds around their native musicians. When we were there, one old duffer-the Wagner, doubtless, of the place-was having an immense success. No matter at what hour of the day we passed through that square, there was always the same spellbound circle of half-clad Turks and Arabs squatting silent while “Wagner” tinkled to them on a three-stringed lute and chanted in a high-pitched, dismal whine-like the squeaking of an unfastened door in the wind. At times, for no apparent reason, the never-varying, never-ending measure would be interrupted by a flutter of applause, but his audience remained mostly sunk in a hypnotic apathy. I never see a “Ring” audience now without thinking of that scene outside the Bab-el-Marsa gate, which has led me to ask different people just what sensations serious music produced upon them. The answers have been varied and interesting. One good lady who rarely misses a German opera confessed that sweet sounds acted upon her like opium. Neither scenery nor acting nor plot were of any importance. From the first notes of the overture to the end, she floated in an ecstatic dream, oblivious of time and place. When it was over she came back to herself faint with fatigue. Another professed lover of Wagner said that his greatest pleasure was in following the different “motives” as they recurred in the music. My faith in that gentleman was shaken, however, when I found the other evening that he had mistaken Van Dyck for Jean de Reszké through an entire performance. He may be a dab at recognizing his friends the “motives,” but his discoveries don’t apparently go as far as tenors!

No one doubts that hundreds of people unaffectedly love German opera, but that as many affect to appreciate it in order to appear intellectual is certain.

Once upon a time the unworthy member of an ultra-serious “Browning” class in this city, doubting the sincerity of her companions, asked permission to read them a poem of the master’s which she found beyond her comprehension. When the reading was over the opinion of her friends was unanimous. “Nothing could be simpler! The lines were lucidity itself! Such close reasoning etc.” But dismay fell upon them when the naughty lady announced, with a peal of laughter, that she had been reading alternate lines from opposite pages. She no longer disturbs the harmony of that circle!

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Bearing this tale in mind, I once asked a musician what proportion of the audience at a “Ring” performance he thought would know if alternate scenes were given from two of Wagner’s operas, unless the scenery enlightened them. His estimate was that perhaps fifty per cent might find out the fraud. He put the number of people who could give an intelligent account of those plots at about thirty per hundred.

The popularity of music, he added, is largely due to the fact that it saves people the trouble of thinking. Pleasant sounds soothe the nerves, and, if prolonged long enough in a darkened room will, like the Eastern tom-toms, lull the senses into a mild form of trance. This must be what the gentleman meant who said he wished he could sleep as well in a “Wagner” car as he did at one of his operas!

Being a tailless old fox, I look with ever-increasing suspicion on the too-luxuriant caudal appendages of my neighbors, and think with amusement of the multitudes who during the last ten years have sacrificed themselves upon the altar of grand opera-simple, kindly souls, with little or no taste for classical music, who have sat in the dark (mentally and physically), applauding what they didn’t understand, and listening to vague German mythology set to sounds that appear to us outsiders like music sunk into a verbose dotage. I am convinced the greater number would have preferred a jolly performance of Mme. Angot or the Cloches de Corneville, cut in two by a good ballet.

It is, however, so easy to be mistaken on subjects of this kind that generalizing is dangerous. Many great authorities have liked tuneless music. One of the most telling arguments in its favor was recently advanced by a foreigner. The Chinese ambassador told us last winter in a club at Washington that Wagner’s was the only European music that he appreciated and enjoyed. “You see,” he added, “music is a much older art with us than in Europe, and has naturally reached a far greater perfection. The German school has made a long step in advance, and I can now foresee a day not far distant when, under its influence, your music will closely resemble our own.”

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