The Metropolitan Opera House (the Met) in New York City, then located on Broadway at 39th Street in New York City, opened on October 22, 1883, with a performance of Charles Gounod’s Faust, the tale of a German sorcerer who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, power, youth, and love. The opera, although composed in French and based on Goethe’s German poem, was sung on this occasion in Italian, the favored language of the Met’s early management.
Did you knowa…I make every month de arrangements for de Italian opera? It is ten times so much refreshing as de movies…It is marvelous. It causa to swell de heart…you never heard de music so sweeta. Yes, de words are de words of Italy. But de fine music, it isa de same in all language. It conquer de spirit. It maka to soar de soul…De price is fifty cents.
[Interview with Vito Cacciola]. Merton R. Lovett, interviewer; Connecticut, March 24, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
The Metropolitan OperaExternal has attracted talented artists from around the world. In its early days, the Met was graced with such legendary conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Gustav Mahler, and the great singers Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, and Christine Nilsson. Since 1966, the Metropolitan Opera has made its home at the Lincoln Center for the Performing ArtsExternal in New York City; opera vocalists such as Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price have performed there.
Historically, opera houses have served a variety of functions in towns and cities across the country hosting community dances, fairs, plays, and vaudeville shows as well as operas and other musical events such as Jenny Lind’s tour. “That old Opera House used to be going every night in the week, pretty near, during the winter season,” Charles Smith recalled in his recollections of life in Thomaston, Connecticut. Smith shared especially fond memories of the community dances he had attended at the Thomaston Opera House:
You’d get down to the Opera House just before eight, it wasn’t stylish to be late those days; and when you got there, you’d escort your girl as far as the ladies’ room, and leave her there, and then you’d join the other lads in the gent’s room, and put on your dancing pumps. Then you’d go back and wait…you’d always have to wait…while she finished her primping, and when she came out you’d escort her to a seat, and wait for the grand march to be called…Usually, the dance would break up at midnight, because all the lights in town went out then. Sometimes, for the big affairs, they’d notify the Power House to keep the current on until one.
[Folklore of Clockmaking]. Francis Donovan, interviewer; Charles Smith, interviewee; Connecticut, December 7, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Dances such as those described by Smith followed an established pattern of etiquette described in detail in many how-to books published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They began, as he recalls, with a Grand March such as that described in the section on “The March” in the 1890 manual, Wehman Bros Book on The Way to Dance: A Book Which Teaches the Art of Dancing Without a Master. The Grand March was followed by sets of quadrilles, contra-dances, round dances, waltzes, polkas, and other dances.
During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration provided jobs for unemployed composers, musicians, and singers through the Federal Music Project which provided classical opera and operetta performances, as well as orchestra and band concerts and free music lessons to the public in cities and towns across America. The Works Progress Administration employed artists through the Federal Art Project to create colorful theatrical posters advertising the Federal Music Project performances.
- Learn more about the Metropolitan Opera House and Opera Company through newspaper accounts found in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Start with Metropolitan Opera House: Topics in Chronicling America to identify important dates and suggested search strategies.
- See a sampling of the types of entertainment which were witnessed on the stages of the local opera houses, usually performed by travelling companies. Browse the collection American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 or search on the term opera, to find examples of comedy routines and musical plays.
- Search the following sheet music collections on Nilsson to find music performed by Christine Nilsson and several cover pictures of the singer:
- Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries
- Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885
- In 1877 Thomas Edison discovered a way to record sound. Eventually his company offered a variety of recorded selections to the public, including operatic arias. Listen to some of these original recordings, for example “O Patria Mia,” Aria from Aida, Giuseppe Verdi, composer, Maria Rappold, performer and “Vesti la Giubba,” Aria from I Pagliacci, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer, Guido Ciccolini, performer.(Select the WAV files from the drop-down download menus). Browse the list Overview of the Diamond Disc Recordings by Genre in the special presentation History of Edison Sound Recordings from the collection Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
- Find more descriptions of dances and ballroom etiquette in An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920.
- Browse the Occupational Index of the Van Vechten Collection for more photographs of performing artists such as the opera singer Beverly Sills.
- Search Today in History to find features on performing arts and artists; for example, composer George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess; singers Jenny Lind, Leontyne Price, and Marian Anderson; composer Victor Herbert; and the formation of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
- View artifacts of the world of “Music, Theatre, and Dance,” such as Lucille Ballard’s Costume Design for a Dancer created for the 1946 revival of Show Boat, in the Imagination section of the American Treasures of the Library of Congress online exhibition.
- Search Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century External on Metropolitan Opera Company to find publicity brochures, flyers, and advertisements pertaining to the Metropolitan Opera Company.
- Search the Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919 on Metropolitan Opera to find newspaper highlights about the Metropolitan Opera Company.
- Search the Denver Public Library Digital CollectionsExternal on opera, opera singer, or opera house to find a wide variety of images.
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey also links to information on opera houses.
- Search the Digital Collections on opera to find operatic sheet music, correspondence, finding aids, and links to collections with operatic materials.