Monday, April 26, 2010

Is opera to blame for country music?

By the early 1880s, Knoxville was hosting extravagant “Music Festivals,” held every spring. Touting itself as “the little Paris of the United States,” Knoxville emphasized European opera above all else, concentrated around Staub’s Opera House, which was on the southeast corner of Gay Street and Cumberland. Significant stars of opera and classical music from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston would take the train to Knoxville for a pleasant weekend of music, some of it outdoors at Chilhowee Park. Even if Knoxvillians didn’t always have the patience for a whole opera—these festivals were mostly composed of portions of operas, individual arias and acts—they loved the singing, and turned out in the thousands.

Knoxville’s music festivals may have left a surprising and thoroughly unintended legacy.

Some older Knoxvillians were skeptical of the Music Festival. Back then, opera was believed to inflame the passions of hot-blooded youth, and they weren’t crazy about their youngsters putting on European airs. In May, 1883, some older folks staged a sort of anti-opera counter festival, featuring some down-home fiddle music on an afternoon at Staub’s when there were no sopranos scheduled. It’s the earliest example of country music being played on a public stage I’ve been able to find.
Opera has some surprising roots out here in the "deserts of Louisiana" (as the Manon Lescaut libretto puts it). The first performances of Lohengrin in the New World took place in the German country of Texas, for instance. And I'm always delighted when I float by Jenny Lind Rock, one of the enormous cliff walls at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, a place famous for its echoes. Lind's 1850 tour of America was almost a Beatlemania level sensation (Berlioz has an entertaining passage about it in Evenings with the Orchestra). Decades later, Pat Brown, a hermit dwelling in a cave near Echo Park, told acquaintances that he had a pet mountain lion who would scream from the echoing clifftop:
"Pat claimed that the lion would come out upon a high cliff and scream in answer to his yell," said Mr. Barber, "and old Pat would say, 'that sound is sweeter than any Jenny Lind ever sang.'" Old residents of the Brown's Park country still call this cliff Jenny Lind Rock.
While we're on these subjects, Mrs. P and I watched La Fanciulla del West a while back, Puccini's opera set amongst the 49-ers of California. Act I is a little slow, and the end is pretty maudlin, but Act II is classic lurid, blood-dripping, rip-roaring Puccini. I'd love it if the Santa Fe opera would adapt it to be set in, say, Madrid, New Mexico, but the drunk Indian characters probably preclude the possibility, alas.

(A hat tip to Professor Reynolds)

1 comment:

Juliana said...

Hmmm...certainly something to ponder. I remember listening to a Kate Rusby song about a man who was unfaithful and thought "You know - if she were Mexican, this song would have different lyrics AND a different tone!" The "Western" attitude does seem to be more dramatic.