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The Future of Italian Opera in America

Secured especially for THE ETUDE from the renowned operatic baritone
Of The Metropolitan Opera House, N. Y., and Covent Garden, London
 
So closely identified is Italy with all that pertains to opera, that the question of the future of Italian opera in America is one that interests me immensely. It has been my privilege to devote a number of the best years of my life to singing in Italian opera in this wonderful country, and one cannot help noticing first of all, the almost indescribable advance that America has made along all lines. It is so marvelous that those who reside continually in this country do not stop to consider it. Musicians of Europe who have never visited America can form no conception of it and when they once have had an opportunity to observe musical conditions in America, the great opera houses, the music schools, the theatres and the bustling, hustling activity, together with the extraordinary casts of world-famous operatic stars presented in our leading cities, they are amazed in the extreme.
 
It is very gratifying for me to realize that the operatic compositions of my countrymen must play a very important part in the operatic future of America. It has always seemed to me that there is far more variety in the works of the modern Italian composers than in those of other nations. Almost all of the later German operas bear the unmistakable stamp of Wagner. Those which do not, show decided Italian influences. The operas of Mozart are largely founded on Italian models, although they show a marvelous genius peculiar to the great master who created them.
 
antonio-scotti.jpgOPERATIC TENDENCIES.
The Italian opera of the future will without doubt follow the lead of Verdi, that is the later works of Verdi. To me Falstaff seems the most remarkable of all Italian operas. The public is not well enough acquainted with this work to demand it with the same force that they demand some of the more popular works of Verdi. Verdi was always melodious. His compositions are a beautiful lace-work of melodies. It has seemed to me that some of the Italian operatic composers who have been strongly influenced by Wagner have made the mistake of supposing that Wagner was not a master of melody. Consequently they have sacrificed their Italian birthright of melody for all kinds of caccophony (sic). Wagner was really wonderfully melodious. Some of his melodies are among the most beautiful melodies ever conceived. I do not refer only to the melodies such as “Oh, Thou Sublime Evening Star” or the “Bridal March” of Lohengrin, but the inexhaustible fund of melodies that one may find in most every one of his astonishing works. True, these melodies are different in type from most melodies of Italian origin, but they are none the less melodies, and beautiful ones. Verdi’s later operas contain such melodies and he is the model which the young composers of Italy will doubtless follow. Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and others, have written works rich in melody and yet not wanting in dramatic charm, orchestral accompaniment and musicianly treatment.
 
OPERA THE NATURAL GENIUS OF ITALY’S COMPOSERS.
When the Italian student leaves the conservatory in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred his ambitions are solely along the line of operatic composition. This seems his natural bent or mould. Of course he has written small fugues and perhaps even symphonies, but in the majority of instances these have been mere academic exercises. I regret that this is the case, and heartily wish that we had more Bossi’s, Martucci’s and Sgambatti’s, but, again, would it not be a great mistake to try to make a symphonist out of an operatic composer. In the case of Perosi I often regret that he is a priest and therefore cannot write for the theatre, because I earnestly believe that notwithstanding his success as a composer of religious music, his natural bent is for the theatre or the opera.
 
THE COMPOSERS OF TO-DAY.
Of the great Italian opera composers of to-day, I feel that Puccini is, perhaps, the greatest because he has a deeper and more intimate appreciation of theatrical values. Every note that Puccini writes smells of the paint and canvas behind the proscenium arch. He seems to know just what kind of music will go best with a certain series of words in order to bring out the dramatic meaning. This is in no sense a depreciation of the fine things that Mascagni, Leoncavallo and others have done. It is simply my personal estimate of Puccini’s worth as an operatic composer. Personally, I like Madame Butterfly better than any other Italian opera written in recent years. Aside from Falstaff, my own best role is probably in La Tosca. The two most popular Italian operas of to-day are without doubt Aïda and Madame Butterfly. That is, these operas draw the greatest audiences at present. It is gratifying to note a very much unified and catholic taste throughout the entire country. That is to say, in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia one finds the public taste very similar. This indicates that the great musical advance in recent years in America has not been confined to one or two eastern cities.
 
THE INFLUENCE OF THE STAR SYSTEM.
It is often regretable that the reputation of the singer draws bigger audiences in America than the work to be performed. American people go to hear some particular singer and not to hear the work of the composer. In other countries this is not so invariably the rule. It is a condition that may be overcome in time, in America. It often happens that remarkably good performances are missed by the public who are only drawn to the opera house when some great operatic celebrity sings.
 
The intrinsic beauties of the opera itself should have much to do with controlling its presentation. In all cases at present the Italian opera seems in preponderance, but this cannot be said to be a result of the engagement of casts composed exclusively of Italian singers. In our American opera houses many singers of many different nationalities are engaged in singing in Italian opera. Personally, I am opposed to operas being sung in any tongue but that in which the opera was originally written. If I am not mistaken, the Covent Garden Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera House are the only two opera houses in the world where this system is followed. No one can realize what I mean until he has heard a Wagner opera presented in French, a tongue that seems absolutely unfitted for the music of Wagner.
 
THE POSSIBLE INFLUENCE OF STRAUSS AND DEBUSSY.
I do not feel that either Strauss or Debussy will have an influence upon the music of the coming Italian composers similar to that which the music of Wagner had upon Verdi and his followers. Personally, I admire them very much, but they seem unvocal, and Italy is nothing if not vocal. To me Pelleas and Mélisande would be quite as interesting if it were acted in pantomime with the orchestral accompaniment. The voice parts, to my way of thinking, could almost be dispensed with. The piece is a beautiful dream, and the story so evident that it could almost be played as an “opera without words.” But vocal it certainly is not, and the opportunities of the singer are decidedly limited. Strauss, also, does not even treat the voice with the scant consideration bestowed upon it in some of the extreme passages of the Wagner operas. Occasionally the singer has an opportunity, but it cannot be denied that to the actor and the orchestra falls the lion’s share of the work.
 
OPERATIC CENTERS IN ITALY.
Americans seem to think that the only really great operatic center of Italy is Milan. This is doubtless due to the celebrity of the famous opera house La Scala, and to the fact that the great publishing house of Ricordi is located there, but it is by no means indicative of the true condition. The fact is that the appreciation of opera is often greater outside of Milan than in the city. In Naples, Rome and Florence opera is given on a grand scale, and many other Italian cities possess fine theatres and fine operatic companies. The San Carlos company, at Naples, is usually exceptionally good, and the opera house itself is a most excellent one. The greatest musical industry centers around Milan owing as we have said, to the publishing interests in that city. If an Italian composer wants to produce one of his works he usually makes arrangements with his publisher. This, of course, brings him at once to Milan in most cases.
 
MORE NEW OPERAS SHOULD BE PRODUCED.
It is, of course, difficult to gain an audience for a new work, but this is largely the fault of the public. The managers are usually willing and glad to bring out novelties if the public can be found to appreciate them. Madame Butterfly is a novelty, but it leaped into immediate and enormous appreciation. Would that we could find a number like it! Madame Butterfly’s success has been largely due to the fact that the work bears the direct evidences of inspiration. I was with Puccini in London when he saw for the first time John Luther Long’s story, dramatized by a Belasco, produced in the form of a one-act play. He had a number of librettos under consideration at that time, but he cast them all aside at once. I never knew Puccini to be more excited. The story of the little Japanese piece was on his mind all the time. He could not seem to get away from it. It was in this white heat of inspiration that the piece was moulded. Operas do not come out of the “nowhere.” They are born of the artistic enthusiasm, and intellectual exuberance of the trained composer.
 
AMERICA’S MUSICAL FUTURE.
One of the marvelous conditions of music in this country is that the opera, the concert, the oratorio and the recital all seem to meet with equal appreciation. The fact that most students of music in this land play the piano has opened the avenues leading to an appreciation of orchestral scores. In the case of opera the condition was quite different. The appreciation of operatic music demands the voice of the trained artist, and this could not be brought to the home until the sound- reproducing machine had been perfected. The great increase in the interest in opera in recent years is doubtless due to the fact that thousands and thousands of those instruments are in use in as many homes and music studios. It is far past the “toy” stage and is a genuine factor in the art development and musical education of America. At first the sound-reproducing machine met with tremendous opposition owing to the fact that bad instruments had prejudiced the public, but now they have reached a condition whereby the voice is reflected with astonishing veracity. The improvements I have observed during the past month have seemed altogether wonderful to me. The thought that half a century hence the voices of our great singers of to-day may be heard in the homes of all countries of the globe gives a sense of satisfaction to the singer, since it gives a permanence to his art, which was inconceivable twenty-five years ago.

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