Opera Potpourri

Now and again it happens that opera rubs shoulders with politics, and acquires some importance in the affairs of nations. Lulli’s power at court in the days of Louis XIV was notorious, and none too generously exercised so far as his fellow-musicians were concerned. But influence with monarchs, such as that which he acquired, is rarer now, and less powerful than in those earlier days. Lulli profited by the royal favor bestowed on him, but some great composers have been less fortunate.

Cherubini, for instance, was detested by the greatNapoleon, who lost no opportunity of inflicting slights upon him. Cherubini’s sympathies were clearly manifested in his “Water Carrier” opera, as on the side of revolution, but distinctly contrary to the excesses to which it often led. So enraged were some ruffians with him that he was in 1794 dragged out of his house, marched through Paris, and finally compelled to pro-vide music for the pleasure of his captors. Napoleon frequently called him into his presence in order to praise other composers, suggesting that he compared unfavorably with them. When Cherubini replied with some little spirit, he was promptly punished by being compelled to conduct various concerts and state performances with no reward whatever.

Napoleon was sometimes given to indulging his sardonic humor at the expense of those who waited on his favors. It is related by one who knew him well that once at a social function he indulged his whim by pretending to humiliate the composer Gretry. Coming face to face with him several times, Napoleon repeatedly asked the musician, “And who are you?” At last, tired of identifying himself, he replied, “Sire, I am still Gretry.”

Napoleon, for a time, could not do enough for Spontini. He commanded the production of “La Vestale,” and rewarded him with a present of 10,000 francs, loading him, moreover, with praises and honors. This did not, however, last for very long, tor the downfall of the great conqueror was at hand, and anxieties and cares claimed his attention.

Political feeling has probably never run so high over operatic matters as it did in Paris after the Franco-German war. For years no German work was tolerated, at any rate so far as new matter was concerned, and the determination of the management to produce Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in 1891 was the signal for a riotous uproar. Public feeling ran high ; some of the leading singers, considering discretion the better part of valor, caused frequent postponements of the performance by means of convenient indispositions, and when the work actually came to presentation cordons of police were called out to guard the opera house, both inside and out. M. Lamoureux, who conducted, did so with a pistol in his pocket. Opposition inside the theater made itself felt by an objectionable device of setting floating in the auditorium little balloons of foul gas; while opposition in the street was met by cavalry charges and frequent arrests. The whole occasion was made one of political import, but fortunately common sense prevailed, and no serious issues resulted. Happily for opera, such scenes as these are infrequent and unusual.

Opera is not a fortune-making business for the majority of those who embark on such enterprises. So far as the composition of opera is concerned, financial result is usually very small. Nowadays an opera cannot be lightly tossed off in a few days. It is true that Handel composed “Rinaldo” in fourteen clays, Rossini “Il Barbiere” in thirteen (a wonderful performance), and Pacini his “Saffo” in four weeks; but these are very exceptional instances, and may fitly he contrasted with the labor of Wagner, who had his “Meistersinger” and “The Ring” on hand for something like twenty years. Modern opera. with its polyphonic orchestral background and amorphous movements, demands years of work. and for the majority of those who give so much of their lives to it there is little to show in return from a pecuniary point of view.

Operatic management, too, is very speculative; Handel lost his whole fortune and became bankrupt through his operatic ventures. and vet his works had enormous success in their day. The example set by him has been followed by many a subsequent manager, and is perhaps yet in store for many another.

The chief item in expenditure is, of course, the enormous amount swallowed up in the fees paid to the singers. Handel paid Senesino 1400 guineas for the season in 1731, and even allowing for the greatervalue of money in those days, that is a comparatively small amount. Here, for example, is the contract made by Jenny Lind with Lumley, the London manager, in 1846 ( far less liberal, by the way, than such a singer would receive to-day) :

“1. An honorarium of 120,000 francs (£4800) for the season (April 14th August 20th, 1847).

“2. A furnished house, carriage, and pair of horses.

“3. A sum of £300 should she desire to have a preliminary holiday in Italy.

“4. Liberty to cancel the engagement should she feel dissatisfied after her first appearance.

“5. An agreement not to sing elsewhere for her own emolument.”

(See Jenny Lind’s vastly more remunerative dealings with P. T. Barnum, as related in the section on “Vocal Music and Musicians,” Chapter X.)

It generally happens that a singer commands higher fees for private than for public singing, the advantage of the latter being as a rule a guaranteed number of appearances. Farinelli, for example, the chief singer engaged by the noble faction that set up in opposition to Handel in 1734, received only £1500 per annum, but his private engagements made up his income to £5000 a year—a large one at that date. This singer afterward visited the court of Philip V of Spain; that monarch was suffering from mental depression, from which nothing aroused him until the advent of Farinelli. The Queen was so delighted to see her royal spouse once more interested in anything that she engaged Farinelli at a salary of 50,000 francs to remain in Madrid. This he did, singing the same four songs to the King every night for ten years! Eventually Philip V succumbed, but he must have been a patient monarch.

It does not always happen that singers of equal merit receive the same payments, some being more fortunate than others. Catalani, for example, in 1807 received in London £5000 for the season, and with her concerts and provincial tours netted a profit for the year of £16,700. A more famous singer, Lablache, in 1828 could only command £1600 for four months; while Malibran in 1835 received £2755 for twenty-four appearances in London, and 45,000 francs for one hundred and eighty-five performances a few years later at La Scala.

But these fees are as nothing compared with those commanded by the leading singers of to-day, more especially in America, where money is “poured out like water,” and where artists are sometimes retained at high fees by one opera house, even if they do not sing a single note during the whole season, so that a rival house shall not secure their services. It is not very unusual for a singer to receive $5000 per performance in the twentieth century. Madame Patti has stated that she received $6000 per night for two seasons of sixty nights each. Caruso has been paid $100,00o for eighty performances, and about $40,000 per annum for singing into gramophones ; his contract for four years at $200,000 per annum with the New York Metropolitan is probably a record in this direction.

Of course the amounts received by those who compose the music never approximate to such figures as these. For “Don Giovanni” Mozart received only 500 thalers, and for “Figaro” 100 ducats. Weber’s payment for “Der Freischutz” was 8o Friedrich d’ors, out of which he had to pay the librettist ; after the treasury had netted 30,000 thalers from this work Weber was presented with 100! There are, however, a few examples of fair bargains made by musicians. Spontini, in 1814, was offered a salary, then liberal, equal to S3750 per annum for two operas each year in Berlin; in 1819 he accepted a ten years’ engagement at the court of Frederick William III, Berlin, at a salary of 4000 thalers, a benefit of 1050 thalers, a free concert, and a pension. He was well treated, but did not himself behave very well, allowing his servant to sell free ad-missions to the theater, and grumbling because his first-night presentations did not bring in as much as he wished. He finally ended by a demand for compensation for 46,85o thalers, and that in face of the fact that he was convicted of lese-majesty and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment an indignity from which his new monarch graciously released him.

Sometimes an agreement is made with the composer by which he receives a royalty or lump sum for each performance of his work. To the composer of an opera that takes the public fancy this spells fortune, and vast sums have now and again been made in this way. Isouard, for example, received for the performances of his “Cendrillon” in Paris alone over 100,000 francs in 181o, -while Rossini and others have by similar strokes of luck easily acquired wealth. So small, however, is the proportion of new works to-day which become popular that the chances of such good fortune are very small ; a “Cavalleria Rusticana” only makes its appearance now and then, nor is the composer of such a work often able to repeat his success.

Although rarely recognized. the work of the author of the libretto is of vast importance. In the days when the story meant little or nothing, provided so many pegs were provided on which to hang the arias, the share of the librettist was a less conspicuous one ; to-day no inconsiderable part of the failure of an opera is due to a poor libretto. It therefore frequently hap-pens that composers, finding it impossible to obtain a poem to please them, write their own libretti, the chief example of this dual work being Wagner, whose dramas are often very fine considered from a literary point of view alone.

Most famous of the librettists of early operas is Metastasio (1698-1782), some of whose poems were set by thirty and forty different composers : he wrote dramas used by such composers as Handel, Hasse, Jomelli, Porpora, Graun, Gluck, Meyerbeer, Caldara, Haydn, Cimarosa, and Mozart. In later days mention may be made of the dramatist Scribe (191-1861), a French poet who provided a vast number of works for various composers, including Auber, Adam, Boieldieu, Donizetti, Herold, Halevy, Meyerbeer, and Verdi. Quite one hundred of his operas were staged and per-formed, to say nothing of light dramatic and other pieces.

Scattered here and there in literature that deals with opera may be found endless stories of singers, composers, and art-patrons. Most fruitful in providing amusing tales are the prime donne, whose jealousies and bickerings, although unpleasant enough for thosewho have to contend against them, make sufficiently good reading. The prima donna generally knows her power, and is autocratic. There is not found every day a Handel to take such a one forcibly by the scruff of her neck and hang her suspended from a window in mid-air until his will is obeyed. When such a fractious lady has a husband in the same cast consequences may be very bad indeed. The tenor Arsani, for example, the teacher of the Garcias, had a wife who was a prima donna; but instead of acting together, so jealous were they of each other, that when one was receiving the plaudits of the audience the other would go round into the auditorium and hiss!

Rivalry is not always, however, so apparent, and when fine singers are willing to cooperate, very great results are sometimes obtained. The most notable ensemble in this respect was probably that of the four great singers Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache, a combination of talent very seldom equaled, which delighted auditors of the early Victorian era.

Nowadays, although a person of power. the great singer has not the field so entirely to himself as to be able to dictate regarding what he will or will not do. A certain tenor, for example, at Marseilles early in 1905 withdrew his promise to sing at a certain concert for the reason that a rival tenor had been engaged. Great was his amazement to find that this refusal by no means jeopardized the concert, as he had hoped, but rather became an additional source of amusement ; for the management, having advertised him, determined that he should be seen upon the stage ; so a ridiculous effigy of him was brought forward, and a trio from “Faust” was sung by other singers grouped round it. This may not have been very dignified, or even witty, but a few drastic measures of this kind might induce singers to be a little more reasonable in their treatment of the public.

Strange measures are sometimes taken to prevent the success of an opera. A hired body of fellows to hiss in opposition to the organized claque is by no means a rare sight in a French house: but sometimes more militant measures are taken. Rousseau’s “Le devin du village,” for example, received its coup dc cynic,- in 1828 from the fact that some person (sup-posed to have been Berlioz) threw a huge powdered wig on to the stage in the midst of the performance. So threatening was the opposition to Jomelli’s “Armida,” produced in 1750, that its composer fled the house for his life by a back door. The opposition to “Lohengrin” in Paris has already been commented upon, but that to “Tannhauser,” organized by the Jockey Club in 1866, was even stronger. Noise and disorder filled the theater; people in the pit played flageolets, while the gallery sang riotous songs. So prejudiced was public opinion that a fair hearing was not accorded to the work. Under these conditions it is not altogether incredible that Merimee should have exclaimed that he could write similar music after hearing his cat walk up and down the pianoforte!

Of composers, there are perhaps more amusing stories of Spontini than of any other single opera writer. This very opinionated and high-handed Italian thought much of himself, and little of all else, with the result that his life is very amusing reading.

He would have what he wanted. If his cellos could not play loud enough, they were made to sing their parts as well ; if, after six hours’ rehearsal, his prima donna fainted, he suggested that some one with more physique should be engaged. He did not, however, always have his own way. When “La petite maison” was produced in 1804, the audience dashed on the stage and smashed everything, while “La Vestale” was greeted with laughing, snoring, and the putting on of nightcaps. His orchestra, although moderate in volume in comparison with what often obtains to-day. was considered very noisy, so much so that it is said that a certain doctor who had a very deaf patient thought he might be made to hear by attending a performance of “La Vestale.” After a specially noisy passage the deaf man with delight turned to his doctor : “I can hear,” said he. His remark met with no response, for the reason that the doctor himself had been deafened by the noise.

Spontini felt such opposition very keenly; othersare less affected by hostility. When Rossini’s “I1 Barbiere” was produced at Rome in 1816, it was hooted and hissed, much to the chagrin of several of the composer’s friends. Thinking to commiserate with him on the failure of his work, they called at his house, expecting to find him in the depths of despair. Instead of that, the maestro was safely tucked up in bed and fast asleep!

Stories of singer and composer might fill many chapters of such a work as this, but there are books such as Sutherland Edwards’s “History of the Opera” and Ella’s “Musical Reminiscences” to which those interested may readily turn and find them ; therefore such anecdotes need not be multiplied here.

A wealth of amusement may be derived from the daily papers, and in our time impresarios, in one country or another, often seem to be the most persecuted persons in the world. Opera has its worries and troubles, but to those who love it it is a constant source of refreshment and of artistic joy.