MANY YEARS AGO A BARITONE visiting the Opera House in Parma, Italy, was delighted to discover that upon finishing the last note of the Prologue to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci the audience greeted him with cries of “Bis! Bis!” or “More! More!” Naturally, the singer was well pleased with himself and proceeded to sing the aria again. The crowd roared for another time through; the singer complied. Again the audience requested a repeat; again the baritone gave it to them. But, they were not to be so easily satisfied, and still cried for more. The dazed singer, who was by this time exhausted, came before the curtain and said “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, but I cannot sing it again.” A voice from the crowd answered authoritively: “You will sing it until you get it right.”
About the same time in El Paso, a touring opera company was presenting The Barber of Seville. One of the musicians happened to mention to his neighbors during the intermission that the touring version included several minor cuts. Within minutes the word spread throughout the audience, who then became so enraged that the sheriff had to be summoned. The ticket holders were convinced they had been cheated and were not getting their money’s worth.
Separated as they were by geography and cultures, these two incidents together reflect the sort of growth which has kept Grand Opera alive and vital through the centuries.
From its Florentine beginnings around 1600, opera’s growth has almost always followed a two-part pattern. First of all, opera is seen as a diversion for the rich. (This is usually accompanied by the belief that the host country is not sophisticated enough to produce real opera, and that foreign composers and artists must be relied on to provide the necessary skills and talent.)
The second stage occurs when someone (or some people) realize that their nation (or section) is not as impoverished as everyone believed, and that homegrown singers and composers could produce operas just as vibrant and alive as those fancy foreigners.
This pattern is particularly evident throughout European history. In France, many thought that a successful French Opera was impossible until the composer Lully assumed control of the Royal Music Academy and forged a new French style. Germany borrowed styles, composers and singers from Italy until Mozart came along and produced a masterpiece called The Magic Flute, which became the progenitor of all subsequent German Opera.
In his Short History of Opera Donald Grout points out that: “The English tendency to underrate their own music in comparison with Continental composers has been a bane of their musical history ever since Elizabethan times.” He goes on to describe the emergence of a true English opera as being owed “partly to the genius of a very small number of English composers who were either conservative enough or of sufficient original genius to resist foreign domination.” One of those composers was Henry Purcell, who produced England’s first operatic masterpiece: Dido and Aeneas.
Even Russia has experienced the difficulties of starting a successful national opera. Until the 19th century most singers, conductors, and stylistic features were imported directly from Italy or France. Then Glinka composed A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila both of which became models for later Russian opera.
The Russian court nobility was as intent on getting its money’s worth from visiting Italian companies as was that turn of the century El Paso audience. Even critical Parma’s opera began as an imitation of the fashionable French opera of the period.
At some point, however, opera ceases to be an imported commodity and instead becomes an art and entertainment that local talent is capable of executing as well as anyone. This phenomenon is now happening in Texas. It began in San Antonio and has spread to Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston (where it is currently the most vital).
The credit for the first professional opera locally produced in Texas goes to the Symphony Society of San Antonio. In 1945, Max Reiter, then conductor of the symphony, decided to augment the season with a short festival of opera. The response was positive and unanimous. As a result of the first year’s success a pattern was set which has continued in San Antonio and which has also been followed in a major way by Dallas and Fort Worth.
The procedure called for importing well known stars for the principal roles with secondary parts taken by local singers. The three local San Antonio colleges or the Mastersingers could be called on to provide the chorus parts.
This system has attracted numerous stars. Patrons have been offered Birgit Nilsson’s Tosca, James McCracken’s Otello, and Norman Treigle’s Boris Godunov. In 1968, the first uncut North American version of Verdi’s Don Carlo was presented to celebrate the opening of HemisFair and the Theater for the Performing Arts.
The repertory has, in the main, been rather conservative. There have been uncountable offerings of Aida, Traviata, La Boheme, and Il Trovatore. The most favorable receptions from a musical vantage point have been in the lesser played works such as Boris Godunov.
San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium seats 6000 people, which means barn-like acoustical qualities to at least part of the house. The smaller Theater for the Performing Arts has a bright sound suitably balanced and warm throughout. The sightlines are also excellent and offer a fine view with uniform sound anywhere in the hall.
The star system employed in San Antonio and also utilized by Dallas and Ft. Worth has several fundamental drawbacks. Too often insufficient rehearsal time is granted to the incoming leads, who can then do little to tailor their performances to fit the particular house, company, and situation in which they are performing. Secondly, the absence of a resident company means that the secondary singers who are selected from the community are often not up to the professional level required by the performers with whom they share the stage. One’s credulity is stretched to hear a dialogue between the excellent Louis Quilico