Opera in English: Class and Culture in America, 1878-1910 Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Turner, Kristen
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Music, Musicology Graduate Program
  • European grand opera performed in English translation was a potent cultural force in the United States at the end of the long nineteenth century. Analysis of business correspondence, theater records, advertisements, reviews, and social commentaries, reveals that rhetoric about opera engaged with issues of class, race, gender, and nationalism. Critics identified foreign-language grand opera as a high art, suitable primarily for the upper class and educated listeners. In contrast, writers viewed the same operas sung in English as entertainment for a middle-class audience who wished to enjoy opera in the vernacular performed by American singers. Southern small towns, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, used English-language opera and art music to reinforce racial boundaries and to project a civic identity as a refined, middle-class city. The African American community, as a result of segregation and oppression, had different conceptions about art, class, and culture than the white majority. African American writers framed English-language performances by the all-black Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company as a way to resist racial tyranny by emphasizing the skill of the troupe's singers and the sophistication of its educated black audience. The operatic marketplace was shaped by the same issues that influenced the discourses about opera. Advertisements and other types of marketing referred to class, race, and nationalism, while performers and impresarios created public personae that transgressed and reified nineteenth-century conceptions of gender. The critical reception and American performance traditions of Georges Bizet's Carmen were also influenced by the ideas that affected the reception, production, and marketing of opera as a whole. Pantomimes and crucial cuts recorded in scores used by English-language troupes at the time served to manipulate the audience's perceptions of Carmen's main characters to support the critics' reactions to the work, which were colored by contemporary political and social conditions. By 1910, when it had become clear that grand opera sung in English could not move into the high-art sphere occupied by foreign-language grand opera, the cultural niche for English-language opera closed, and its performers and impresarios transferred their energy and business savvy to middle-class entertainments such as vaudeville, Broadway musicals, and silent film.
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  • In Copyright
  • Nádas, John Louis
  • Preston, Katherine
  • Fauser, Annegret
  • Vandermeer, Philip
  • Bonds, Mark Evan
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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