THE AMERICAN OPERA SINGER: The Lives and Adventures of America’s Great Singers in Opera and Concert From 1825 to the Present.<i> By Peter G. Davis</i> .<i> Doubleday: 626 pp., $40</i>

<i> Michelle Krisel is assistant to Placido Domingo, artistic director of the Washington Opera</i>

One of the more startling facts of contemporary American culture is that interest in opera is booming. Far from the moribund and “elitist” art form that some believe it to be, opera is alive and kicking, its audience ever more popular and younger. According to recent figures compiled by the the National Endowment for the Arts and by Opera America, even the so-called Generation X has embraced opera. In the decade 1982 through 1992, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds attending U.S. opera performances rose 18%. During the same period, the overall audience for opera in America grew by an astounding 25% even as government support for the arts plummeted.

What happened?

Perhaps Adam Smith was right and the marketplace is the culprit. Perhaps the popularity of mega-concerts such as “The Three Tenors”; crossover recordings by opera singers to Broadway, jazz and pop songs; and televised opera broadcasts with attractive performers and simultaneous translation have prompted people previously unfamiliar with opera to stumble upon its many seductions.

Whatever the reason, those of us who labor in the intoxicating world of opera are thrilled to think that the musical treasure that had been the possession of a happy, if obsessive, cult is now shared by millions more. Perhaps they will even become interested in the fascinating history of opera itself.


If so, Peter G. Davis, the longtime music critic of New York magazine, is the perfect guide, for Davis is unrivaled as America’s most knowledgeable and sympathetic writer about the human voice and opera. In “The American Opera Singer,” he exhaustively chronicles the rise and fall of singers from the first third of the 19th century to the present. He introduces a colorful cast of operatic pioneers, largely forgotten today even by the cognoscenti--but then again, how many of today’s popular American, or for that matter European, stars, will be talked about in 100 years? Davis convincingly debunks the myth of the American classical singer as a second-class artist, dismissed abroad and scorned in America. Davis shows that the American singer has always been appreciated precisely for his Americanness.

In the 19th century, the characteristic American sound had a kind of puritanical freshness, according to contemporary accounts. Critics of the reigning American divas at the end of the century, for example, described Clara Louise Kellogg’s sound as “maiden-like.” Minnie Hauk was dubbed the “American icicle,” and Emma Eames was praised for her “icy execution.” The first American opera stars, Davis observes, were as noted for their piousness as for their performances. It was precisely the “saintly persona” of the English-born Jenny Lind which P.T. Barnum, the canny impressario and promoter of her staggeringly successful American tour of 1850, exploited to sell her charms to the public. As the “people’s prima donna,” Emma Abbott never failed to attend church on Sunday, and demanded that all 60 members of her touring troupe share her high morals. In the 20th century, the American singer became justly regarded for technical proficiency. And to this day, American singers, it is fair to say, are as a rule, simply better trained, better prepared, technically more capable and professionally more dependable than their European counterparts.

Davis’ richly researched book is filled with tales of individuals who persevered against great odds. Though it’s an old story, only the fiercely motivated (and lucky) survive. A young girl comes from a small town. Her father disapproves of a life on the stage; the community raises money for her to study abroad (in her mid-teens); her mother believes in her talent, accompanies her on her studies and later on her concert tours, making sure she doesn’t accept kisses on or off the stage, leaving only when her talented and headstrong daughter marries the unscrupulous manager or the doting accompanist or, just as in an operetta, succumbs to the charms of a fallen Russian aristocrat residing on the Riviera.

Careers began and ended early, with some stars receding into comfortable obscurity while others declined into penury, working in laundries or speak-easies. One unfortunate soprano had the honor of performing for President Lincoln (interpolating “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a performance of “The Barber of Seville”) and died in childbirth less than a year later. A few of the most glamorous lived on in the public imagination and would virtually mesmerize the next generation: When Rise Stevens went to Berlin to study in 1937, for instance, she caught a glimpse of the middle-aged Geraldine Farrar meeting the Crown Prince Frederick of Germany for an assignation at the Hotel Continental. Another example: The ailing Mary Garden advising Dorothy Kirsten to “exude confidence and let your bosoms lead you.”

The excellent introduction alone is worth the price of the book. It deserves to be excerpted and reprinted separately. Davis observes that the history of the American singer was, until the advent of World War II, largely the history of the female singer. The dearth of men, he argues, had less to do with the widespread view that becoming a singer was simply not a “manly” vocation but rather because becoming an opera star was one of the few avenues open to women who hungered not just for fame but also for fortune. Since there were already ample opportunities for young men to strike it rich in a relatively undeveloped America, there was little financial incentive for a man to try his luck on the stage. For most corseted women, an advantageous marriage was the only lucrative profession. Becoming an opera star, on the other hand--which in pre-TV, film and record days was akin to becoming a movie star and pop idol rolled into one--was a tempting trip out of the ghetto.

While Davis shows that the American singer was overwhelmingly female, he also shows that she was not exclusively white. He shatters the myth that the black classical singer is of recent vintage, pioneered by that glorious martyr to opera and human rights Marian Anderson. Though it is all but certain that black singers encountered crippling racism, the list of successful and popular artists is long and impressive. It includes Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield in the 1850s, Marie Selica in the 1890s, Sissiernetta Jones (who sang for President Benjamin Harrison) and finally Roland Hayes, who, in the 1920s, became so successful that he not only owned a villa in France but was able to buy the farm where his parents had been slaves.


Perhaps Davis’ greatest contribution is to demonstrate that the complaints about today’s singers were yesterday’s kvetches, too. A partial list would include the following: The press turns young singers into stars before they’re ready (yet a century and more ago, most careers were made in a singer’s teens--years younger than a “young” singer today); in the jet-age, singers perform too much (yet the train-and-whistle-stop tours were far more taxing and had the singer performing nearly every day); voices are frayed by switching to repertoire that is too heavy (yet Nordica sang both the high “Queen of the Night” and sultry “Kundry,” and before the “Fach” system became so explicit, most women went from soprano to mezzo repertoire in the blink of a false eyelash); unscrupulous managers push and exploit their artists (yet P.T. Barnum originated the concept as he toured his singers to the delight of the public and the exhaustion of the artist); and, finally, opera singers are demeaned by large-scale “popular” concerts (yet the stars of the Metropolitan Opera always made their real money from radio and, later, television and movies). More dispiriting is the persistent failure to interest the government in seeing the value of investing in culture. Here the tales are illuminating: from mezzo Minnie Hauk trying to interest Chester Arthur in creating an American national opera company to bass-baritone David Scull Bispham, who tried to convince President Woodrow Wilson to have music taught in public schools. Such efforts proved fruitless.

Davis believes that the future of opera lies in the hands of the composers who, he writes, must create “music of a lyrical, expressive eloquence that invites singers to participate actively in bringing the work of musical theater to life. [They must] reanimate the age-old mutually beneficial relationship between singer and composer.” Because an opera comes to life only through an interpreter, Davis concludes that “Maria Callas, Jon Vickers, or George London could never have become important singers by performing ‘The Ghosts of Versailles,’ ‘Einstein on the Beach’ or ‘Nixon in China.’ ” Because these works are less about the depths of human emotion and more about the idea of opera, they do not offer great expressive vehicles for the singing actor. Most modern works, Davis argues, simply do not offer singers roles which might propel them to the charismatic heights of a Callas or a Vickers or a London. And without such stars who can make the dead notes on the page come alive with conviction and passion, the music will remain inert, the listener unmoved. He cautions: “The performance of classical music will not continue indefinitely . . . for good things need not last forever.”

Davis is not a congenital optimist. He knows that what goes up comes down and that a boom can go bust. Meanwhile, between acts, as it were, we can comfort ourselves with this learned and instructive book.