MoboReader > Literature > Chopin and Other Musical Essays

   Chapter 6 No.6

Chopin and Other Musical Essays By Henry Theophilus Finck Characters: 53393

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


GERMAN OPERA IN NEW YORKToC

Perhaps it is not generally known that Mr. Theodore Thomas some years ago entertained the project of reviving German opera in New York, in a manner that should eclipse all previous operatic enterprises in this country. It was his intention to give in the leading American cities a series of performances of Wagner's Nibelung Tetralogy, and he looked forward to this as the crowning achievement of his busy life. For years he never gave a concert without having at least one Wagner selection on the programme, no matter how much some of the critics and patrons protested. In 1884 he considered the public sufficiently weaned of Italian sweets to stand a strong dose of Wagner; so he imported the three leading singers of the Bayreuth festivals-Materna, Winkelmann, and Scaria-for a number of festival concerts. The extraordinary success of these concerts seemed to indicate that the time was ripe for a complete theatrical production of Wagner's later music-dramas, and Mr. Thomas was already elaborating his plans when an accident frustrated them and took the whole matter out of his hands.

This accident was the signal failure of Italian opera at the Metropolitan Opera House during the first season of its existence. As Mr. Abbey lost over a quarter of a million dollars by this disaster, no other manager could be found willing to take his place and risk another fortune. Since Mr. Abbey's company included several of the most popular artists-Nilsson, Sembrich, Scalchi, Campanini, Del Puente, etc., and his repertory embraced the usual popular operas, the conclusion seemed inevitable that the public wanted a complete change. Dr. Damrosch was accordingly appealed to at the eleventh hour, and he hastened to Germany and brought over a company that scored an immediate success, surprising even to those who had long advocated the establishment of a German opera in New York. And this success became still more pronounced in the following seasons, when a better company was secured, with Herr Seidl as conductor.

Perhaps it is fortunate that Mr. Thomas's project was never realized. Had he succeeded, New York and several other cities would no doubt have enjoyed a series of interesting Wagner performances for one or two seasons; but after the first curiosity had been satisfied, it is very likely that the enterprise would have come to an end for lack of funds. For it is a well-established fact that grand opera, if given with the best singers, artistic scenery, and an orchestra of sixty to one hundred men, cannot be made self-supporting, however generously the public may contribute to it. The Paris opera is kept afloat by means of an annual subsidy of eight hundred thousand francs, and the imperial opera-houses of Berlin and Vienna, although similarly endowed, are burdened with large annual deficits which have to be covered by additional contributions from the imperial exchequers. New York can hardly claim so large a public interested in high-class opera as Vienna and Berlin; hence it would be unreasonable to expect that grand opera should fare better here. It was, therefore, one of the most lucky accidents in the history of American music that the Metropolitan Opera House was built, in opposition to the Academy of Music, by a number of the richest people in New York, who had made up their minds to spare no cost to make it successful and to annihilate the rival house. Having once built the new opera-house, it became necessary to continue giving in it the only kind of opera adapted to the vast dimensions of its auditorium, unless the stockholders should become willing to pay the high annual rent without any return at all. And thus German opera has been established in New York, if not for all time, at least for years to come.

The fact cannot be too much emphasized that, properly speaking, there is no deficit at the Metropolitan Opera House. True, the total expenses of the operatic season of 1886-1887 were about four hundred and forty-two thousand dollars, and the receipts only two hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars, thus necessitating an assessment of two thousand five hundred dollars on each stockholder. But it must be borne in mind that this assessment simply represents the sum that the stockholders paid for their boxes. As there were forty-five subscription nights, and as each box holds six seats, the price of each was nine dollars, which can hardly be deemed too much for the best seats in the house, considering that outsiders have to pay ten dollars for these same seats, or sixty dollars for a box. A large part of the assessment (about one thousand dollars for each stockholder) would remain for covering the general expenses of the building (including the mortgage bonds), even if no opera were given at all; and surely the box-holders would be foolish if they refused to pay the extra sum (four dollars and eighty-eight cents for each seat), which insures them forty-five evenings of social and musical entertainment. To persons of their wealth this extra sum is, after all, a mere trifle; and it enables them to bask in the proud consciousness of taking the place, in this country, of royalty abroad in supporting a form of art that has always been considered pre-eminently aristocratic.

Some of the stockholders make no secret of the fact that they would very much prefer Italian to German opera, which is Sanskrit to them; and every year, at the directors' meetings, the question of reviving Italian opera is warmly debated. There is also a considerable number of amateurs, editors, and correspondents who are eagerly waiting for some signs showing that German opera is losing ground, so that they may raise a war-whoop in behalf of Italian opera. But the powers that rule the destinies of the Metropolitan Opera House are too wise to heed the arguments of these prophets. They know that Italian opera can never again be successfully revived in New York, and that the only alternative for the present lies between German opera and no opera at all. Signor Angelo and Mr. Mapleson were as unsuccessful in their last efforts in behalf of Italian opera as Mr. Abbey. And although Mme. Patti fared better at her last appearance, it was only because a large number of people believed that she really was singing in New York for the last time; for when she returned a fortnight later for another "farewell," the sale of seats was so small that the spoiled prima donna refused to sing, and only one performance was given instead of two.

The lovers of vocal tight-rope dancing and threadbare orchestral accompaniments who insist that Wagner is merely a fashion, and that ere long there will be a return to the saccharine melodies of Rossini and Bellini, show thereby that they have never studied the history of the opera. This history teaches a curious lesson, viz., that operas which had a great vogue at one time and subsequently lost their popularity can never be galvanized into real life again. What has become of the threescore and more operas of Donizetti, and the forty of Rossini-some of which for years monopolized the stage so completely the world over that Weber and Beethoven were ignored even in Vienna and the German capitals? They are dead, and all efforts to revive them have been futile. These operas had sprung into sudden popularity, whereas "Fidelio," "Euryanthe," "Lohengrin," and "Tannh?user," which for years had to fight for every inch of ground, are now masters of the situation, and gaining in popularity every year. And this brings us to the second lesson taught by the history of the opera-that the works that thus had to fight their way into the hearts of the public are the immortal operas that are sure to gain more and more favor as years go by. Moreover, the statistics of German opera-houses show that Wagner's operas, from the "Flying Dutchman" to the "Nibelung's Ring," have been gaining in popularity and frequency of repetition, year by year, with a constancy that might almost be expressed with mathematical exactness by means of a crescendo: <. And we are by no means at the biggest end of the crescendo yet. For there are scores of cities where Wagner would be even more popular than he is, were it not for the woful rarity of competent dramatic singers and conductors.

There is, therefore, no hope for the Italianissimi, who sigh for their maccaroni arias and their "Ernani" and "Gazza Ladra" soup. Italian opera has ceased to exist in New York, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, and even in Italy dramatic music of the modern school is gradually driving out the old-fashioned lyric and florid opera.

In New York, moreover, the press is almost unanimous in favor of German opera, and the press, as a rule, is omnipotent in theatrical matters. I am convinced, for instance, that one of the principal reasons why Wagner was more rapidly acclimated in New York than in the German capitals is that most of the leading German critics are old men-too old to submit readily to Wagner's revolutionary tendencies; whereas in New York all the critics are young men, who only needed to hear a few good performances of Wagner's operas to be filled with an enthusiasm for them, with which many of their readers could not help being infected.

Still another important point must be borne in mind: the fact that the vastness of the Metropolitan auditorium makes it impossible to hear the weak voices and the thin scores of Italians to advantage. Ergo, if this house remains the centre of music in New York, there can be no question that, as I have just stated, the prospect for the next decade or two is, either German Opera or No Opera.

A series of interviews published in the newspapers indicate that the indifference of the stockholders to German music has been greatly exaggerated; and the vote that was taken on January 27, 1888, stood forty to nine in favor of continuing German opera, with an assessment of three thousand two hundred dollars on each box. Not a few of the stockholders would, indeed, prefer "Siegfried" to "Ernani," even if "Ernani" could be depended on for as large audiences as Wagner's opera, which is far from being the case; and I have myself heard some of them confess that after repeatedly hearing Wagner's later operas, they discovered in them a constant stream of melody where all had seemed to them at first a mere chaos of sound. Some of the stockholders, on the other hand, are so absolutely unmusical that they do not know the meaning of the words "tenor" and "soprano," and if blindfolded could not tell if "Faust" or "A?da" was being sung. (This is a real fact that I might prove by an amusing anecdote, were it not too personal.) To this class of stockholders what difference can it make whether they have German or Italian opera? They merely go to the opera because it is a very fashionable thing to do so, and because the ownership of an opera-box confers on them a social distinction almost equal to an order, or a title of nobility, in foreign countries.

Many of the stockholders have converted the ante-rooms to their boxes into luxurious parlors, into which they can retire and talk if the music bores them. But, unfortunately, there are some black sheep among them and their invited guests who do not make use of this privilege, but give the rest of the audience the benefit of their conversational accomplishments. The parquet often resents these interruptions, and hisses lustily until quiet is restored. There are not a few lovers of music who, although able to pay for parquet seats, frequent the upper galleries for fear of being annoyed by the conversation in the boxes. In the highest gallery the quiet of a tomb reigns supreme, and woe to any one who comes late, or whispers, or turns the leaves of his score too noisily: he is immediately pierced with a volley of indignant hisses.

It must be admitted, however, that there is much less talking in the opera-house at present than there was a few years ago. This difference is especially noticeable on Wagner nights, and the change is simply one of the numerous operatic reforms introduced by Wagner and his followers. It must be borne in mind that in Italian opera conversation frequently is not at all out of place, but is a factor of the entertainment recognized even by the composer! Wagner brings out this point clearly in the following remarks: "In Italian opera," he says, "the public gives its attention only to the most brilliant numbers sung by the popular prima donna or her vocal rival; the rest of the opera it ignores almost entirely, and devotes the evening to mutual visits in the boxes and loud conversation. This attitude of the public led the composers of yore to confine their efforts at artistic creation to the solo numbers referred to, and to fill up deliberately all intermediate portions, the choruses and minor parts, with commonplace and empty phrases that had no other purpose than that of serving as noise to sustain the conversation of the audience."

That this is not an exaggerated statement is shown by an extract from a private letter written by Liszt at Milan. Speaking of the famous Scala Opera House, he says: "In this blessed land putting a serious opera on the stage is not at all a serious thing. A fortnight is generally time enough. The musicians of the orchestra, and the singers, who are generally strangers to each other and get no encouragement from the audience (the latter are generally either chatting or sleeping-in the fifth box they either sup or play cards), assemble inattentive, insensible, and troubled with catarrh, not as artists, but as people who are paid for the music they make. There is nothing more icy than these Italian representations. No trace of nuances, in spite of the exaggeration of accent and gesture dictated by Italian taste, much less any effect d'ensemble. Each artist thinks only of himself, without troubling his thoughts about his neighbor. Why worry one's self for a public that does not even listen?"

In German opera, on the other hand, the orchestral part and the choruses and declamatory sections are just as important as the lyric numbers, and many of the most exquisite passages in the operas of Weber and Wagner are a kind of superior pantomime music during which no voice at all is heard on the stage. Now I am convinced that much of the talking in opera-boxes is simply due to ignorance of this fact. Vocal music is much more readily appreciated than instrumental music, and those who have no ear for orchestral measures do not realize that others are enraptured by them. Hence they talk as soon as the singing ceases, unconscious of the fact that they are greatly annoying those who wish to listen to the orchestra.

To a large extent the stupid custom of having music between the acts at theatres is responsible for the talking at the opera. For between the acts everybody, of course, wants to talk; and since at the theatre the orchestra merely furnishes a sort of background or support for the conversation, people naturally come to look upon the overtures and interludes and introductions to the second and third acts of an opera in similar light. Even if entr'acte music in theatres were much better than it is commonly, this consideration alone ought to suffice to banish it from the theatres. It degrades the art and spoils the public.

Those of the stockholders of the Metropolitan Opera House who indulge in loud conversation while the music goes on, or who rent their boxes to irresponsible parties, should remember that it is their pecuniary interest to preserve quiet. For not a few amateurs, as already stated, are driven to the cheaper parts of the house, or discouraged from going at all, by the annoying conversation; and the losses thus resulting are of course added to their annual assessments.

Again, it ought to be clear to any one who has the most elementary knowledge of the laws of etiquette that to disturb others needlessly in the enjoyment of a dearly purchased pleasure is evidence of very bad manners. Musical people suffer more from such interruptions than persons whose ears are not similarly refined can imagine; for the tone colors of a Wagnerian score are as exquisitely delicate and refined as the evanescent films and colors of a soap-bubble, so that the mere rustling of a fan or a programme mars them.

Everybody has heard the story of Handel, who used to get very angry if any one talked in the room, even when he was only giving lessons to the Prince and Princess of Wales. At such times, as Barney relates, the Princess of Wales, with her accustomed mildness and benignity, used to say: "Hush! hush! Handel is in a passion." And Liszt never gave a finer exhibition of his wit and artistic courage than when, at an imperial soirée in the Russian capital, he suddenly ceased playing in the midst of a piece, because the Czar was talking loudly with an officer. The Czar sent an attendant to inquire of Liszt why he stopped; whereupon Liszt retorted that it was the first rule of court etiquette that when the Czar was speaking others must be silent. The Czar never forgave him this well-merited rebuke.

This anecdote has a moral for those who talk loudly at the opera; for it calls attention to the fact that they not only annoy those of the audience who wish to hear the music, but also insult the artists on the stage.

The establishment of habitual silence during operatic performances is only one of the beneficial changes introduced into operatic etiquette through German opera. The method of applauding has been revolutionized too. It is no longer customary to interrupt the flow of the orchestral music by applauding a singer. All the applause is now reserved for the end of the acts. I remember a performance of "Lohengrin," at the Academy of Music, at which the music was thrice interrupted by some ill-bred admirers of Campanini, who applauded him when he first appeared in sight on the swan-boat; again, when he stepped on shore, and a third time when he came to the front of the stage. Now here was one of the most poetic scenes on the whole operatic stage utterly marred for all refined listeners, merely for the sake of showing admiration for a singer which might as well have been expressed later on when the curtain was down. Campanini recognized all these interruptions, and bowed his thanks to the audience.

Quite different was Herr Niemann's behavior when he made his début at the Metropolitan Opera House. Here was the greatest living dramatic tenor, an artist identified with the cause and the triumphs of Wagner, appearing on a new continent, in the same r?le that he had created at the historic Bayreuth festival of 1876. The house, of course, was packed, and included many old admirers who had heard him abroad, and who, of course, received him with a volley of applause when he staggered into Hunding's hut. But Niemann did not acknowledge this applause with a bow or even a smile. He appeared before the public as Siegmund, and not as Herr Niemann. But when the curtain was down he promptly responded to the enthusiastic recalls, and was quite willing, and more than willing, to come forward as often as the audience desired and acknowledge their kindness with bowed thanks.

Now, it is to be noted in this case that Herr Niemann did not lose anything by refusing to recognize the applause that greeted him when he first appeared on the stage; on the contrary, it raised him in the estimation of all whose esteem was worth having; and these applauded him all the more vigorously for his self-denial when the curtain was down. Singers of the old school should take this lesson to heart and ponder it. They imagine success is measured by the number of times they are applauded, and consequently introduce loud, high notes and other clap-trap at the end of every solo, if possible. They forget that while they thus secure the applause of the uncultured, real connoisseurs are disgusted, and put them down in their mental note-books as second-rate artists or charlatans.

Those artists who have followed Wagner's precepts, and merged their individuality and personal vanity in their r?les, have never had occasion to regret their apparent self-sacrifice. They are the only kind of singers now eagerly sought for by managers; and an educated public that does not tolerate applause while the orchestra plays, never fails to vent its pent-up enthusiasm at the end of the act, as has been abundantly proved at the Metropolitan Opera House. A curious episode may be noted sometimes. As soon as the singing has ceased and the curtain begins to descend, a number of people begin to applaud. But the full-blooded Wagnerites wait until the last chord of the orchestra has died away before they join in. The volume of applause is then suddenly multiplied three or four times, to the bewilderment of novices, who do not understand what it all means. It simply means that the concluding strains of Wagner's acts, are usually among the most beautiful measures in the whole opera, which it is a pity and a shame to mar by premature applause.

I have often wondered why people, who put on their overcoats during the final measures, are not ashamed thus to advertise their utter lack of artistic sensibility and indifference to other people's feelings. Nor can one wonder, in view of such facts, that the late King of Bavaria preferred to have opera given when no other spectator was in the house, or that the present Emperor of Germany is beginning to follow his example.

Wagner does not merely ask his interpreters to scorn the usual methods of securing cheap applause, but he himself avoids them in his compositions with a heroic conscientiousness. There is a story of a well-known English conductor who objected to produce a piece by a noted German composer because it ended pianissimo. He was afraid that it would not be applauded if it did not end loudly. Now the finales of Italian operas are habitually constructed on this method. The chorus is brought in at the end, whether the situation calls for it or not, and made to sing as loudly as possible. This stirs up the audience to equally loud applause, and all ends well.

How differently Wagner goes to work! In "Siegfried," for instance, there is no chorus at all. The first act ends with Siegfried's cleaving of the anvil with the sword which he has just forged before the eyes of the audience; and the third ends with the love duo. In these cases there are only two persons on the stage; and at the end of the second act Siegfried is entirely alone, and the curtain falls as he mutely follows the bird to the fire-girdled rock on which Brünnhilde lies asleep, amid the intoxicating and promising strains of the orchestra. The ending of "Die Walküre" is equally quiet and poetic. Wotan has placed poor Brünnhilde on a mound of moss, for disobeying his orders, and covered her with her helmet, after plunging her into a magnetic sleep which is to last until a hero shall come to wake her. He strikes the rock with his spear, whereupon a flame breaks out that quickly becomes a sea of fire encircling the rock. Then he disappears in the fire toward the background, and for several minutes there is no one on the stage but the sleeping Valkyrie, and nothing to be heard but the crackling and roaring of the flames, re-echoed in the orchestra; and this is the end of the opera.

One more illustration: The greater part of the second act of "Die Meistersinger" is taken up with Beckmesser's serenade, comically interrupted by the songs and the hammering of Hans Sachs the cobbler. Toward the end the apprentice David sees Beckmesser, and imagining he is serenading his sweetheart, assaults and beats him most unmercifully. The noise attracts the neighbors, who all take part in the affray, and the scene culminates in a perfect pandemonium of noise. Now there is hardly an operatic composer who would not have closed the act with this exciting and tumultuous chorus. Not so Wagner. The sound of the watchman's horn suddenly clears the street, and no one is left but the watchman himself, who timorously toddles up the street with his lantern, while the moon rises above the roofs of the houses, and the muted strings of the orchestra softly and dreamily recall a few of the motives of the preceding scenes. I was sitting next to Professor Paine, of Harvard, at a performance of this opera at the Metropolitan, one evening. He had not seen it before, and I shall never forget the expression of surprise on his face when he saw the curtain descending on this dreamy moonlight scene, with a deserted stage. He considered it a bold deviation from established operatic customs, and yet he could not for a moment deny that it was infinitely more poetic than the traditional final chorus, with its meaningless noise and pomp.

Not that Wagner despised the chorus, as is sometimes said. He showed in the third act of this same opera, in the scene of the folk-festival, that when a chorus is called for by the situation no one can supply a more inspired and inspiring volume of concerted sound than he. With the possible exception of the last number in Bach's Passion music, I regard the choral music of this act as the most sublime ever written. Here, at any rate, the vox populi is divine.

The magnificent quintet in this act of "Die Meistersinger" also affords proof that if Wagner banished concerted music from his later works, it was not because he lacked inspiration for that kind of work. Although extremely Wagnerian in its harmonies, it is one of those numbers which even Wagner's enemies admire. Some years ago I witnessed a curious scene in the Berlin Opera House. According to Wagner's directions, the curtain goes down after this quintet, but the music continues until the scene is changed. Now, on the occasion in question, the quintet evoked so much enthusiasm that a storm of applause arose. The extreme Wagnerites resented this interruption of the music, and began to hiss; whereupon the others redoubled their applause and their calls for an "encore," which finally had to be granted, as the only way of appeasing this paradoxical disturbance in which Wagnerites hissed while the others applauded!

At the Metropolitan Opera House the stage arrangements are so clumsy that it is necessary to have an intermission of over a quarter of an hour, in order to change this scene. Consequently the last and most popular part of this master-work is never seen till after midnight; and many leave the house annoyed by the long intermission.

And this brings us to the weakest part of modern opera. It las

ts too long. Wagner is not the only guilty composer. Gounod's "Faust," Weber's "Euryanthe," and most of Meyerbeer's operas, if given without cuts, would last over four hours. But in these cases no irreparable harm is done by a few cuts, whereas in Wagner's operas there are very few bars that can be spared, both on account of their intrinsic beauty and because they are required to keep up the dramatic continuity of the story. Nevertheless, Wagner's operas must be cut, in some cases most unmercifully, as in "Die G?tterd?mmerung," in which Herr Seidl was obliged to omit the whole of the first prelude-the weirdly grand scene of the three Fates, and the scene between the two Valkyries-merely to prevent the opera from lasting till one o'clock.

Herr Seidl is perhaps the greatest living interpreter of Wagner. He brings to his works the enthusiasm without which they can neither be interpreted nor fully understood; and his enthusiasm proves contagious to the orchestra and the singers. He not only rehearses every bar of the orchestral score with minute care, but each of the vocalists has to come to his room and go through his or her part until he is satisfied. Although he is invariably civil, his men obey him as they would the sternest general, and admiration of his superior knowledge makes them more attentive to their duty than fear ever would. I do not believe German opera would have won its present popularity under any other conductor excepting Hans Richter. One of the traits to which he owes his great success as a Wagner conductor is his instinctive perception of what parts can be omitted with the minimum of injury to the work he is interpreting. Except at Bayreuth, Wagner's later works did not especially prosper at first, because they were either too long or injudiciously cut. Herr Seidl, however, succeeded with them everywhere. One time Wagner wrote to him complaining that he made so many cuts in his operas. But Herr Seidl wrote back, giving his reasons, and explaining the situation; whereupon he received the laconic telegram from Wagner, "Schiessen Sie los!" (Fire away!).

Eduard von Hartmann, in his recent work, "Die Philosophie des Sch?nen," has some just remarks on Wagner's mistake in making his operas so long that conductors are obliged to use the red pencil, which is not always done intelligently; whereas if he himself had undertaken the task of condensing his works their organic unity might have been preserved. True, Wagner did not intend his later works to be incorporated in the regular operatic repertory, but desired them to be sung only on certain festal occasions, as at Bayreuth, where people went with the sole object of hearing music, and with no other business oppressing them for the moment. But at a time when the struggle for existence is so severe as now it was chimerical on Wagner's part to hope that such a plan could be permanently realized. Few musical people can afford to journey to Bayreuth merely to gratify their taste for opera. Hence the Bayreuth festivals, although most delightful from an artistic point of view, would have never been financially successful, had not the vocalists given their services gratis; and it is doubtful if they will be continued after the death of Wagner's widow. Moreover, it would have been a musical calamity to have the treasures of melody and harmony that are stored away in the Nibelung scores reserved for the lucky few who are able to go to Bayreuth. Wagner himself must have felt this when, contrary to his original intention, he gave Neumann permission to perform the Tetralogy (under Seidl's direction) in Germany, Italy, and Belgium; and since that time it has been successfully incorporated into the repertory of all the leading German cities, and many smaller ones, such as Weimar, Mannheim, and Carlsruhe.

In Germany the length of Wagner's and Meyerbeer's operas is not so objectionable as here, because there the opera commences at seven, or even at six thirty, and six, if it is a very long one; hence it is all over shortly after ten, and everybody has time to take supper before going to bed. But in New York, where it is not customary to sup, and where the dinner hour is between six and seven, it would hardly be advisable to commence the opera before eight. Nor is the interest in the opera sufficiently general to inspire the hope that for its sake any change will be made in the hour of dining. The danger rather lies the other way: that the custom of delaying dinner till eight, which is coming into vogue among the English (who care neither for music nor the theatre), will be followed in this city.

Now consider the inevitable consequences of having excessively long operas. America has plenty of poor loafers, but few wealthy rentiers who spend their days in bed or in idleness, and are therefore insatiable in their appetite for entertainment in the evening. The typical American works hard all day long, whether he is rich or poor, and in the evening his brain is too tired to follow for four hours the complicated orchestral score of a music-drama. If he listens attentively, he will be exhausted by eleven o'clock, and the last act, which he might have enjoyed hugely if not so "played out," will weary him so much that he will probably resolve to avoid the opera in the future. Thus opera suffers in the same way that society suffers: the late hour at which all entertainments begin prevents the "desirable" men who have worked all day, and must be at their work bright and early the next day, from attending parties, balls, and operas.

It must be said, on the other hand, in defence of long German operas, that it is only while they are novelties to the hearer that they fatigue his brain beyond endurance. After they have been heard a few times they cease to be a study that calls for a laborious concentration of the attention, and become a source of pure delight and recreation. The difficulty lies in convincing people of this fact. There are in New York hundreds of persons, who, having read of the rare beauties of "Tristan" or "Siegfried," went to the opera to hear and judge for themselves. Of course, as everything was new to them, they found it hard work to follow all the intricacies of the plot and the music at the same time; hence, their verdict next day was that German opera was "too heavy" for them. These persons cannot be made to believe that if they would only repeat their visits, the labor of listening would be reduced to a minimum and the pleasure increased to enthusiasm. I know a man, one of the cleverest writers for the New York press, a man who can afford to go to the opera every evening, and who does go when Meyerbeer's operas are given, but who absolutely and stubbornly refuses to attend a Wagner performance at the Metropolitan. Why? Because a number of years ago he attended a wretched performance in Italian of "Lohengrin" which bored him! I believe there are many like him in New York.

Mr. Carl Rosa, in an article which appeared in Murray's Magazine a year ago, remarks on this topic: "An Englishman, once bored [at the opera] will with difficulty be made to return; and this is the reason why light opera, opera bouffe, and burlesque have their advantage in this country. They are so easy to digest after dinner." And again: "There is no doubt that opera is, to some extent, an acquired taste; but the taste, once imparted, grows rapidly. From personal experience I know that some of my best supporters had to be dragged to the opera at first, and induced to sit it through."

In these remarks lies a valuable hint to the lovers of German opera. The most important thing to do, if opera is to be permanently retained, is to enlarge the operatic public. This can only be done by means of a concerted action of all admirers of the opera. Let them keep on, with "damnable iteration," to drum into their friends' heads the fact that if they will only make up their minds to attend one good opera three or four times in succession they will become devoted admirers of it the rest of their lives. The friends will finally consent, in pure self-defence, to try the experiment; and in three cases out of four they will become converted and admit that German operatic music is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

There is at present in New York a considerable number of musical Mugwumps, persons who formerly doted on Italian opera, but who now find it tiresome after hearing German opera. The distinguished English psychologist, Mr. James Sully, incidentally speaks of his experiences in regard to Wagner's operas, in his work on "Sensation and Intuition." "Although," he says, "I went to the first performance decidedly prejudiced against the noisy Zukunftsmusik, I found that after patient study of these operas I became so susceptible of their high dramatic beauties that I lost much of my relish for the older Italian opera, which began to appear highly unnatural. I heard from other cultivated Germans-among others from Professor Helmholtz-that they had undergone quite a similar change of opinion with respect to these operas."

Who, on the other hand, has ever heard of a renegade Wagnerite? Such an animal does not exist, and if a specimen could be found, it would pay to exhibit him in a dime museum. The very expression seems a contradiction in terms. Wagner frequently asserted that no one could understand his music unless he admired it; and there is truth in this, for only enthusiasm can sharpen the mental faculties sufficiently to enable us to perceive the countless subtle beauties in Wagner's and Weber's scores. M. Saint-Sa?ns, who is considered the best living score-reader, compares Wagner's scores to those master-works of medi?val architecture which are adorned with sculptured reliefs that must have required infinite care and labor in the chiselling. Now, just as a careless observer of such architectural works hardly notices the lovely figures sculptured on them, so the average opera-goer does not hear the exquisite harmonic and melodic miniature-work in Wagner's music-dramas. But if he has once taken the trouble to study them, he becomes an enthusiast for life; for he constantly discovers new and beautiful details which had previously escaped his notice.

The eighth performance of "Siegfried" in New York was one of those events that will always live in the memory of those who were so fortunate as to be present. Everyone on the stage and in the orchestra seemed to be inspired, and the audience in consequence was electrified. For my part, although I had heard this music-drama at least a dozen times previously, and knew every bar by heart, it seemed as if I had never heard it before, so vividly were all its beauties revealed in the white heat of Conductor Seidl's enthusiasm. All the evening I sat trembling with excitement, and could not sleep for hours afterward. I have for twelve years made a special study of the emotions, but I could not conceive any pleasure more intense and more prolonged than that of listening to such a music-drama. Is not such a pleasure worth cultivating, even if it involves some toil at first? And have not musical people reason to regard with profound pity those poor mortals who can enjoy beauty only through the medium of their eyes, their ears being deaf to the charms of artistically combined sounds?

At the "Siegfried" performance just referred to the audience fortunately was large; but there have been other performances, equally good, when the audience was meagre. On such occasions much of my enjoyment was marred by the melancholy thought that such glorious music should be wasted on empty stalls, when there were thousands of persons in the city who, if they only could have been induced to overcome their prejudices and devote a few hours of previous study to the libretto and the pianoforte-score of these operas, would not only have found them entertaining, but would have enjoyed them rapturously.

The essence and perennial charm of German music lies in its melodious harmony. Nothing is more absurd than the notion that there is more melody in Italian than in German music. The only difference is that in Italian music the melody is more prominent, being unencumbered by complicated harmonies and accompaniments, while in German music the melody is interwoven with the various harmonic parts, which makes it difficult to follow at first. But when once this gift has been acquired, it is a source of eternal pleasure. Nor is it so difficult to cultivate the harmonic sense, if one takes pains to hear good music often and attentively. I once met a young lady on a transatlantic steamer, who frankly confessed she could not see any beauty in certain exquisite Wagnerian and Chopinesque modulations and harmonies which I played for her on the piano. When asked if she did not care for harmony at all, she replied: "Oh, yes! I know a chord which is simply divine!" Then she played-what do you fancy?-the simple major triad-A flat in the bass, and A flat, C, E flat an octave higher-which is the most elementary of all chords, the very alphabet of music. If she found this commonplace chord "simply divine," what would she have said could she have been made to realize that the modulations I had played were as superior to her chord in poetic charm as a line of Shakspere is to the letters A B C? And she could have been made to realize this truth in a few months, under proper instruction.

I have dwelt so long on this matter because I have come to the conclusion, as already stated, that the greatest problem in connection with German opera is to enlarge the patronage, and induce persons to reserve their judgment of a "heavy" opera until they have heard it two or three times. They will soon find that the word "heavy" is a very relative and changeable term in music. To one who really admires Shakspere and Homer, a fashionable novel is tedious beyond endurance; just so, to one who can appreciate "Tristan" or "Euryanthe," Verdi's "Ernani" and Bellini's "Norma" are heavy as lead, soporific as opium.

The difficulty of understanding subtle harmonies is perhaps the main reason why English-speaking people are so slow in appreciating and encouraging the opera. But there are two other important reasons which may be briefly referred to-religious rigorousness, and a certain predilection for the ornamental style of singing.

No doubt there was a time when the stage was so profligate that the Puritans were justified in tabooing it altogether. But that is not now the case. There are many theatres where plays are given that are not only pure in tone, but exert a refining and educating influence on all who hear them. And as for operas, there is hardly one in the modern repertory that is open to censure on moral grounds. Mr. Carl Rosa refers to the curious fact that, when circumstances compel him to give an operatic performance in a hall instead of a theatre, the audiences are of quite a distinct character, including many who like opera, but do not wish to go to a theatre. Now, this general condemnation of the theatre because it is often used for frivolous purposes is just as unreasonable as it would be to condemn and avoid all novels because Zola writes novels.

There is, indeed, a positive harm that results from the tabooing of the theatre by religious people. Why is so large a proportion of our plays frivolous and vulgar? Because the frivolous and vulgar predominate among theatre-goers. If the large number of refined people who avoid the theatre were to attend, this proportion might be reversed, and more of the managers would find it profitable to bring out clean and wholesome dramas. Some prominent clergymen have lately expressed themselves in this sense, and it is probable that a reaction is at hand that will benefit the cause of serious opera. There is absolutely nothing in any of the operas given at the Metropolitan that could not be fitly sung before a Sunday-school audience. Why, then, taboo the opera and jeopardize its existence, leaving the field to the frivolous operettas and farces?

The other obstacle alluded to-the love of colorature song-is a thing that will cure itself with the advance of musical culture. The Germans and the French have long since turned their backs on the florid variety of vocalists, and the Italians are now following suit. An eminent Italian teacher in New York, who has made a specialty of teaching trills and runs and roulades and other vocal circus tricks, lately declared that he was tired of this style of singing, and began to prefer a more simple and dramatic style. The same is true of the modern Italian composers. It is well known that Bo?to, Ponchielli, and Verdi in his latest operas, approximate the German style; and their admirers will doubtless ere long adapt their taste to this change. Nevertheless, there are not a few remaining who look upon opera as a sort of vocal acrobatics. They go once or twice to the Metropolitan, and feel defrauded of their money if the prima donna fails to come forward to the prompter's box to run up some breakneck scales, and, having arrived at the top, descend by means of a chain of trills or series of somersaults. Their interest in music is athletic (feats of skill), not ?sthetic (artistic expression of emotions). Yet these people have the impudence to say that German opera is "stupid," forgetting that their case might be analogous to that of the drunkard who thinks the earth is reeling when he is.

This class of opera-goers never tire of abusing such singers as Fr?ulein Brandt and Herr Niemann because their voices are no longer as mellow as in their youth, and sometimes weaken in a sustained note or swerve for a second from the pitch. Such blemishes are no doubt to be regretted, but they are a hundred times atoned for by the passion and the variety of emotional expression that animate their voices, and by their superb acting. Fr?ulein Brandt's Ortrud, Eglantine, and Fides will be referred to generations hence as models, as will Herr Niemann's Tannh?user, Siegmund, Cortez, Lohengrin, Tristan, etc. New Yorkers must consider themselves fortunate in having heard for two seasons the greatest of Wagnerian tenors-even though he is no longer in his prime-the man who sang the title r?le of "Tannh?user" when that opera was produced in Paris in 1861; who created the part of Siegmund in 1876 at Bayreuth; and who, in his way, has done as much to popularize Wagner's operas as Liszt did during the Weimar period, when people had to go to that city to hear "Lohengrin" and "Tannh?user," as they now go to Bayreuth to hear "Parsifal." He is not only valuable for the sake of his artistic qualities, but because of his enthusiasm for the cause of the best music. Wagner held him in the highest esteem; and he wrote in his review of the Bayreuth festival of 1876, that without Niemann's devotion and ardor its success would not have been assured. He regretted subsequently that he did not ask Niemann to create the r?le of Siegfried in the last drama of the Tetralogy, as well as that of Siegmund in the second. Thanks to this mistake, New Yorkers had the privilege of hearing Niemann's début in this r?le-at the age of fifty-seven, an age when most tenors have retired on their pensions.

Three artists are included in the present company at the Metropolitan whom Mr. Stanton could not dispense with under any circumstances. One of these is Herr Fischer, who, now that Scaria is no more, is beyond comparison the finest dramatic bass on the stage. No Italian could have a more mellow and sonorous voice, and his method has all the conscientiousness, passion, and distinctness of enunciation that characterize the German style. His Wotan and his Hans Sachs, especially, are marvels of operatic impersonation. Herr Alvary, the second of the vocalists who unite Italian with German merits, is a young singer who has a great future before him, if his Siegfried, a most realistic and powerful impersonation, may be argued from. And as for the third of these artists-Lilli Lehmann-her equal can hardly to-day be found on the operatic stage. It is very characteristic of the late Intendant of the Berlin theatres-Herr von Hülsen (who waited nine years before he accepted "Lohengrin" for performance, and afterward repeated the same faux pas with the Nibelung Trilogy)-that he confined Fr?ulein Lehmann for years to subordinate r?les. Indeed, although she had acquired considerable fame abroad, it may be said that her real career did not begin till she came to New York. Here her rare merits were at once recognized, and instead of resting on her laurels, she has grown more admirable as an actress and singer every year. Her voice has a sensuous beauty that is matchless, and no other prima donna, except Materna, has emotion in her voice so deep and genuine as that which moves us in Lehmann's Isolde and Brünnhilde.

She made her début in 1866, at Prague, and ten years later sang the small r?les of the first Rhine maiden and the forest bird in "Rheingold" and "Siegfried," at the Bayreuth festival-little fancying, perhaps, that she would twelve years later be the queen of German opera in America. She takes excellent care of her voice, and never allows the weather to interfere with her daily walk of several miles. Her versatility is extraordinary, for she sings Norma and Valentine as well as she does Isolde. She scouts the idea that Wagner's music ruins the voice, agreeing on this point with the most famous vocal teacher of the day, Madame Marchesi. It is only when Wagner's music is sung to excess that it injures the voice, according to Fr?ulein Lehmann, because it requires such extraordinary power to cope with the orchestra. Heretofore she has not always succeeded in holding her own against the full orchestra, but in her latest and greatest impersonation-Brünnhilde, in "Die G?tterd?mmerung"-her voice rivalled Materna's in power without losing a shade of its sensuous beauty, which is always enchanting.

If it were possible to secure half a dozen more singers like Lehmann, Alvary, and Fischer, the operatic problem might be regarded as solved. It is the scarcity of first-class acting vocalists that makes opera so expensive, and prevents it from being self-supporting. The number of first-class singers is so small that every manager competes for them, and enables them to charge fancy prices, which are ruinous to any manager who has no government or other support to fall back on.

It is a curious thing, this scarcity of good singers. We read so much about all professions being over-crowded; and yet here is a profession in which success literally means millions, and yet so few come forward in it that managers are at their wits' ends what to do, especially in the case of tenors. Herr Niemann obtains seven hundred and fifty dollars for every appearance; Fr?ulein Lehmann gets six hundred dollars, and there are singers who are much better paid still because they appear under the star system. Surely this ought to be a sufficient bait to catch talented pupils. How many professions are there in which one can make between five hundred and two thousand dollars in three or four hours?-not to speak of the possibility of winning the great prize-Madame Patti's four or five thousand?

It is sometimes said that the repertory is at fault; but I am convinced that if there were plenty of good singers in the field, many of the operas that were formerly in vogue might be revived successfully-always excepting the flimsy productions of Bellini and Donizetti. It was formerly believed for years that "Lohengrin" was the only one of Wagner's early operas that American audiences cared for. But "Tannh?user" has, in a few years, become more popular than "Lohengrin," thanks largely to its better staging and interpretation. Owing in a large measure to Fr?ulein Brandt's Fides and Fr?ulein Lehmann's Bertha, Meyerbeer's "Prophète" has been a success for several years. Spontini's "Cortez," Weber's "Euryanthe," Wagner's "Rienzi," and Beethoven's "Fidelio," are among the most interesting revivals during Mr. Stanton's enterprising régime.

No composer, and few poets, have ever inspired so many artists to visualize their conceptions on canvas as the poetic scenes suggested in Wagner's dramas. A special exhibition of such pictures was held in Vienna some years ago. It is not too much to say that Wagner's scenic backgrounds are as much more artistic than those of other opera composers as his texts are more poetic than theirs. He avoids frequent changes, and generally has only three scenes for an opera. But each of these, if executed according to his directions, is a masterpiece, and impresses itself on the memory like the canvas of a master.

The performance of the Trilogy in New York has naturally revived among the Wagnerites the question as to which of the master's works is the greatest. Leaving aside "Tristan" and "Die Meistersinger," which he never surpassed, many regard the first act of "Die Walküre" the most finished of Wagner's creations; and certainly it has a marvellously impressive climax-Siegmund's drawing of the sword from the ash-tree, and the love duo which follows; and another in Wotan's farewell in Act III. But grand as these are, many consider the last act of "Die G?tterd?mmerung" the supreme achievement of Wagner. The exquisite trio of the Rhine maidens swimming and singing in a picturesque forest scene; the death of Siegfried, and the procession that slowly carries his body by the light of the moon up the hill; and the burning of the funeral pyre at the end, until it is put out by the rising waters of the Rhine bearing the maidens on the surface; these scenes, with the glorious music accompanying, cannot be matched by any act of any other opera. Nevertheless, as a whole, "Siegfried" is, in my opinion, the grandest part of the Trilogy. In no other work of Wagner is there such a minute correspondence, every second, between the poetry, music, and scenery. Every action and gesture on the stage is mirrored in the orchestra; and I shall never forget the remark made to me in 1876, at Bayreuth, by a musician, that in "Siegfried" we hear for the first time music such as Nature herself would make if she had an orchestra.

* * *

Typographical errors corrected in text:

Page 92: removed extra 'to' in 'resorted to to rouse'

Page 158: Wilhelmj replaced with Wilhelm

Page 162: Erlich replaced with Ehrlich

Since 'Erlking' (page 138) and 'Erl King' (page 237) are from two articles, and both are legitimate spellings of Schubert's music, these are left as is.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares