Nineteenth-century music has never faded as a foundational subject of inquiry among musicologists nor has its popularity waned in the concert hall or college classroom. Since at least the 1980s, however, musicologists have begun to question the prominence given to the repertoire presented in these spaces and, more broadly, the influence of the canon on modern perceptions of music of the past. Critical interrogation of musicology and its historiography has yielded an expanding list of composers, provided a more balanced view of compositional practices, and opened the door to reconsiderations of performance, circulation, and reception. This type of research provides a more holistic approach to Western music and allows for new examinations of old concepts and innovative interpretations of familiar repertoires.
Music in the United States presents special challenges to traditional methodologies. Its historiography is too young to have many old concepts, and its repertoire hardly familiar. Tensions that may be discerned among those who focus on more conventional fields of study (such as German Romanticism) are amplified among Americanists because of the long shadow that European music casts over the nineteenth century. Consider, for example, Hugh Macdonald's Music in 1853: Biography of a Year, which documents the interactions of Brahms, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, and Joachim.1 While Macdonald's book is a fascinating study of men who figure in nearly every history of nineteenth-century music, these men hardly represent music heard in the United States in 1853. Since the United States belongs in the category “Western” (for reasons too numerous to recount here), those who tell the story of music history of the nineteenth century by focusing on these composers presumably include the United States as part of their cultural space. One result of the European shadow is that general explanations of American music in the nineteenth century focus almost entirely on the extent to which American composers were European (particularly German), the emphasis on symphonists reinforcing the Germanic bias of such accounts. But this was not the music that most people in the United States heard. Herein lies the problem: whose history do we wish to tell? This attitude has begun to change, and some textbook authors have attempted to solve this paradox by updating traditional contents with inserted pages on Stephen Foster and minstrelsy in order to include American music. This is not, however, a satisfactory answer, for it does not describe what middle- and upper-class people heard on a regular basis in the nineteenth-century United States: opera.
Throughout the entire period, opera of various sorts dominated the concert repertoire that was heard in public as well as much of the music performed in parlors and institutions. Katherine Preston's Opera for the People: English-Language Opera and Women Managers in Late 19th-Century America is the author's latest contribution to her ongoing efforts to correct a continued misreading of musical practices on stages across the United States. It follows on from her highly acclaimed Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825–60, in which she argues for the persistent presence of opera in American life before the Civil War.2 Preston's research strategies are once again fully evident in Opera for the People, as she adds a new dimension to our understanding of what Americans listened to after the war, and lays out the evidence for English-language opera's unequivocal importance in the narrative of music in the United States.
Over the course of the first half of the century, Americans had been persuaded that Italian-language opera (and to a slightly lesser degree French grand opéra) endowed them with refinement and sophistication, on the model of the British aristocracy. The 1850s witnessed a turn toward German music, which was supposed to edify and enlighten Americans who looked to European music for cultural uplift. This version of music history in the United States persists today, but Preston skillfully draws out many strands that testify to the constant presence of opera in English throughout the entire century, all of them amply documented. She reveals the roles that women played as managers and performers, and in this supplements our knowledge of musicians working in the country, demonstrating women's agency in meeting the demands of American audiences. For example, she locates the long career of Emma Abbott (1850–91) in middle-class Americans’ rejection of the elitism associated with German- and Italian-language opera in favor of a familiar style of popular musical theater. Nationalism, too, figures in this discussion, especially observed in Jeannette Meyers Thurber's American Opera Company, later renamed as the National Opera Company (see Chapter 6). Preston's focus on performers, performances, and venues fosters an enlightening approach to the writing of music history. Playbills, payment records, visual culture, and the press inform her conclusions, and eight appendices (on the OUP website) provide further documentation.
In Opera for the People Preston incontrovertibly substantiates the continued popularity of English-language opera in the United States and its widespread performance in venues from Boston to San Francisco. She organizes the book in chapters that investigate the professionals responsible for producing this repertoire, providing engaging accounts of women whose influence she has uncovered in her research. Making the archival material available in and of itself is justification for the book's publication, but it accomplishes much more. It is valuable for its wealth of new information about people, particularly women, and the concomitant data surrounding repertoire and circulation. Its presentation of women's business practices renders it useful as the starting point for future scholarship not only in musicology but also in American studies, women's studies, and related disciplines.
The decades immediately after the Civil War saw an unprecedented number of women enter the workforce, but for many this foray into working outside the home lasted only for a brief period. In these latter cases, women fell back into their usual roles once their financial situations became more stable. Others, however, sought to retain their newfound independence. The woman at the center of Chapter 4, Effie Hinkley Ober (1844–1927), epitomizes those who remained employed. While the vast expanse of Preston's new material on women's direct involvement in business contributes to timely conversations concerning women's activities in the late nineteenth-century United States, her findings are grounded in analyses that have been expanded significantly since at least 1990. For example, scholars of American literature have nuanced traditional views of the cult of domesticity or doctrine of separate spheres, avoiding putting women into an “essentialist, reductionist position.”3 This is not to argue against the entire idea of the cult of domesticity but to place it in a less idealized position and avoid the tacit dismissal of women in the home that often accompanies comparisons between them and those who remained outside it. Women employed in the opera business created and directed their own careers as administrators, exemplifying a meaningful anomaly that cannot be contained by the cult of domesticity. They substantiate a socioeconomic diversity, working women of the middle class, that is often neglected in histories of music in the United States. Preston touches on some of the viewpoints presented by the abovementioned scholars, and she supports their conclusions in her discussion of women such as Ober and Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker (1867–1934), an African American educator and businessperson. Situating women managers within the broader context of working middle-class woman in this period would have added another dimension to the overall discussion. On the other hand, to have delved too deeply into such scholarship could have detracted from the main points she makes and drawn focus away from the stated goals of the research.
This study will further inspire new approaches to thinking about what we value when considering a musical culture—whose music is included in summations of practices? If we give a book a title such as Music in Western European [or] American Culture, which parts of that culture are we using to define the whole? Which data do we emphasize in determining the cultural values of a given time and place? Opera for the People demands that scholars rethink the way they define and describe American music in the nineteenth century. Preston positions this book as an alternative approach to music history, and she adroitly maneuvers the performers and procedures to the forefront by drawing our attention to women such as Ober, manager of the Boston Ideal Opera Company, and Abbott, the “People's Prima Donna.” It provides a refreshing counterpoint to a narrative too long framed by men such as Theodore Thomas and Edward MacDowell, and a viewpoint that sees women enter music history in the United States with Amy Beach. The words “for the people” in the book's title point precisely to the audience that Preston uncovers but that many others ignore. The Boston Ideals, the Emma Abbott Grand English Opera Company, and Thurber's American/National Opera Company were aimed not at the “fashionables” but at “a middle-class audience for English grand opera through savvy marketing and creation of a public persona that resonated with millions of Americans” (pp. 237–38). This book is not about the type of opera that was purposefully limited to an exclusive clientele (whose superiority was made plain in music journals published in the northeast, as well as in Cleveland and Chicago) but about part of the normal theatergoing experience for working-class Americans, as well as those slightly above them on the social ladder.
In this respect, Opera for the People documents cultural practices, the influence of class, and regional distinctions. Preston casts light on new areas of inquiry, challenging long-held concepts about music in the United States (for example, the persistent emphasis on Stephen Foster and Theodore Thomas) and drawing attention to the primacy of music on the stage in the late nineteenth century. She marshals wide-ranging data and supports her arguments with extensive archival materials. We are presented with real people whose vitality and sense of purpose is evident from their own words, newspapers accounts, and copious images.
Opera for the People is comprehensive in its scope and depth, fully justifying its length (over 600 pages). That Oxford University Press approved such luxurious treatment of a little-recognized phenomenon is both a mark of the author's reputation and a credit to the press, as well as to those responsible for the AMS Studies in Music series, of which the book is a part. The series now comprises thirteen volumes, two of which focus on Brahms and a third on late nineteenth-century Vienna. These maintain the traditional focus of nineteenth-century studies, even if the methodologies are innovative. This is not to imply that we have said all there is to say about Brahms, or Vienna, or other typical research topics. Nonetheless, we must continue to expand our approach to defining what constitutes data, culture, and many other aspects of musical experience at a given time. Opera for the People, together with some of the other books in this series, contributes to the inclusion of people other than composers in a more comprehensive view of the way music history is shaped.4 Only by absorbing expansive concepts of musicking—music as process—can we attempt to understand the music of the past and its influence on what we do today.5