The ever-growing body of topical research websites ranges from seemingly passive repositories of singular items with varying degrees of description to carefully curated sites that are in themselves acts of digital scholarship. The three sites considered in this review contain digitized artifacts that date primarily from the late nineteenth century through the present, though their contents are more significant for historical understandings of American musical life during the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, all three collections transcend perceived boundaries, either through their transnational nature or the wide variety of their materials, or because the historical activities associated with their content have fallen between disciplinary fields. While the Metropolitan Opera Archives website highlights the history of a well-known cultural institution and is thus the most predictable in the kinds of comprehensive information it provides, Traveling Culture and Re-envisioning Japan, whose usefulness for music scholars is perhaps not as immediately obvious, require additional critical apparatus to provide contextualization for their contents. All three websites can play a role in scholarship and pedagogy, though they vary in terms of their effectiveness in providing access points and necessary wider understandings for their users, as well as in the degree to which they take full advantage of their digital formats. Together, the sites constitute a spectrum of disciplinary resources for music studies, and their contents and platforms prompt important discussions about digital archival experiences.

Metropolitan Opera Archives

Former Metropolitan Opera archivist Mary Ellis Peltz once described the company’s extensive collections as “[r]otting in a sooty basement, rust-stained in ancient tin boxes, eaten by rodents or pulverized by old steam leaks, stuffed higgledy-piggledy into ripping cartons.”1 Programs, receipts, props, scenery, performer correspondence, and personal memorabilia abounded in the lower levels of the old Metropolitan Opera House, accessible only to staff and researchers. In undertaking the process of cataloging the long-neglected material, Peltz had two aims: preservation and public service. The reorganized collection was to be used by researchers and interested fans alike. Peltz’s collation and consolidation efforts ultimately informed the assembly of Gerald Fitzgerald’s oft-cited Annals of the Metropolitan Opera (AMO).2 While the Met’s physical collections remain important for ongoing archival research, recent decades have seen the launch of three distinct online, open-access platforms: the MetOpera Database, the Bispham Collection of Opera Memorabilia, and a series of “Notes from the Archives.” These free resources, accessed from a central web page, offer engaging, detailed data for scholars and ready-made archival experiences for students.

As the digital archive’s oldest and most often cited reference tool, the MetOpera Database builds upon the exhaustive coverage of its print predecessor, the AMO.3 Launched in 2005, the site comprises data from nearly thirty thousand documented performances, spanning from the company’s inaugural season to the present. Its contents center on archived production data for each of the sequentially numbered performances, and pages therefore resemble playbills replete with dates, locations, and cast lists. Many entries also feature production photographs, reviews, scenic alterations and aria substitutions, and notable encores. Unlike the AMO, the database benefits from the flexibility and searchability of its digital platform, promising information “updated five days a week during the season.” While the simple text pages may appear dated (see figure 1), the savvy researcher will certainly be able to make good use of the site’s helpful Guide, which details the site’s search functions, browsing capabilities, and suggested search terms. For example, a search for “Price, Leontyne” using the Met Careers filter for the Browse function reveals that the famed soprano gave 204 performances for the Met, including an early-career gala appearance as Bess in 1953. Other inquiries could include a Key Word Search for a specific city along the company’s annual tour route, a Multi-Field Search for a performer in a specific role, or a Browse entry for a list of world premieres at the Met. Each performance entry likewise contains indexed hyperlinks to related subjects such as associated seasons, roles, locations, and performers.

Figure 1

Screenshot from the Metropolitan Opera Archives, MetOpera Database, showing one of the results of a Multi-Field Search using performer and work title, accessed July 29, 2021, from

Figure 1

Screenshot from the Metropolitan Opera Archives, MetOpera Database, showing one of the results of a Multi-Field Search using performer and work title, accessed July 29, 2021, from

Close modal

Whereas the MetOpera Database provides access to the company’s documentary annals, the Bispham Collection of Opera Memorabilia showcases some of its former artifacts. Named in 1957 in memory of baritone and American opera advocate David Bispham, the physical collection contained autographs and personal belongings of composers, performers, and artistic personnel—from Johann Sebastian Bach to Paul Dukas and from Enrico Caruso to Risë Stevens—that were sold individually by Christie’s auction house in 2017 for the sum of nearly $1.5 million. As a collection, then, the items currently exist together only as digital surrogates, further complicating debates regarding the material validity of virtual objects. Museum scholar Fiona Cameron writes that “historical objects tend to be ‘museumified’ as aesthetic witnesses to … historical events or people” and that physical objects, specifically, maintain a “metonymic relationship” to past associations through external “systems of meaning.”4 Cameron and others hold that these digital surrogates nevertheless retain material meaning even after digitization.5

These theoretical implications loom large over the digital Bispham Collection. For fans of opera, the assemblage of static images creates a sense of proximity to its disparate historical sources, while the material value of the collection is reified by associations with the perceived institutional authority of the Metropolitan Opera and broader conceptions of Western musical-historical significance. Images of Bellini’s gold Breguet pocket watch, Barber’s Cartier pen, and Galli-Curci’s lace handkerchief, for example, all evoke both grand opera’s class connotations and historical figures deemed important in the history of Euro-American opera. Readers interested in digital preservation and virtual curation may glean useful information from this portion of the Met archives, as will those researching topics relating to operatic materiality and the construction of cultural value systems. The collection’s digitized manuscripts also contain primary sources for some canonic composers, such as a letter penned by Donizetti regarding revisions to Lucia di Lammermoor, a page of string quartet sketches by Beethoven, an autograph short-score fragment of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, and a letter of 1784 from Mozart to his father detailing concert appearances in Vienna. Although the high-resolution images (supplied by Christie’s in 300 dpi) lack zoom functions on the website itself, they can be dragged to the desktop and manipulated as needed.

To supplement the physical and digital collections, the Met’s Director of Archives Peter Clark also publishes short “Notes from the Archives.” Whereas many database entries and digital artifacts remain largely uncontextualized, these forty-three explanatory essays utilize images and documents from the collections to present brief, engaging historical narratives about the Met’s composers, performers, and productions. The majority center on production histories of single Met operas, chronicling the changing casts, designs, and performance choices over time. Throughout these “Notes,” production data from the MetOpera Database is clearly put to use: “Verdi at the Met” mentions eight of the composer’s operas that have never been performed by the Met, “Elektra at the Met” notes the opera’s 114 performances, and “Turandot at the Met” highlights its thirty-year absence from the Met stage. Critical approaches and broader contexts are necessarily limited, but public audiences (and students) may benefit from such historical vignettes, while readers of this Journal may appreciate them as introductions to the extent of the Met’s collections.

Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century

While the Metropolitan Opera Archives reflect American music historiography’s typical concentration on musical developments in specific urban centers, Iowa Digital Library’s Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century provides primary sources for Chautauqua, which was widespread throughout the country. Traveling Culture is the digitized portion of the extensive papers of the Redpath Chautauqua Bureau, the largest circuit Chautauqua management firm, held at the Special Collections of the University of Iowa Libraries. Named for the educational retreat for Sunday school teachers in Chautauqua, New York, founded in 1874, the circuit system consisted of commercial ventures in which “talent” was supplied by regional entertainment bureaus that lasted from approximately 1904 into the early 1930s. Chautauqua reached over nine thousand towns in the early 1920s and anywhere from nine million to twenty million persons in a given year.6 The lectures and music provided for small communities, typically towns with populations of under ten thousand, were presented as “culture,” an educational and moral good that would enrich rural lives. Managers booked five to seven days’ worth of lectures and entertainments for each town, supplying a tent, platform, and advertising. Although Chautauqua was an important cultural force in the early twentieth century, it is generally omitted from historical accounts of American music, and its role in the careers of better-known performers such as sopranos Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Alice Nielsen, the Weatherwax Brothers, and Bohumir Kryl and his band is often overlooked by musicologists. Besides the famous, Chautauqua had some 250 musical acts touring on around one hundred circuits under the auspices of the twenty-one managing companies during its peak years. These included vocal quartets, chamber groups, opera companies, bands, jubilee ensembles of African American singers, novelty acts, and various “exotic” groups such as Hawaiian musicians.7

Unfortunately, the political content of Chautauqua’s oratory and its dramatic entertainments are more researchable than its music, as most concerts were given without printed programs. Nonetheless, the 8,474 items digitized in the Traveling Culture collection are a major resource for considering music in Chautauqua. These are mostly the publicity fliers of Chautauqua speakers and performers, who not only appeared on the summer tent circuit but might also be hired for lyceum entertainments during the winter season. Ranging from just a few pages to small booklets, the fliers typically feature publicity photos, biographies, reviews, and sometimes lists of towns in which performers have appeared (see figure 2). The fliers’ primary purpose was marketing, and thus they sometimes reveal more about the way Chautauqua administrators wanted performers to be perceived than about what they actually presented to rural audiences. However, the subject heading of “program” is provided for some three hundred fliers that contain a sample listing of a typical concert, illuminating the musical repertoire that was heard in America outside of urban centers. The collection also includes digitized programs from individual Chautauquas, photos of meetings of the International Lyceum & Chautauqua Association, occasional concert programs, and hundreds of fliers that postdate the Chautauqua era, dating from as late as the 1960s. Topical headings reveal that the collection contains approximately one thousand items each for “musical groups,” “singers,” and “pianists,” seven hundred for “violinists,” five hundred for “sopranos,” six hundred for “musicians,” and eight hundred for “entertainers.” While such broad terms are serviceable entry points for music scholars, they do not always capture the complexities of Chautauqua ensembles or their programming. Many of the 120 listings for “orchestras,” for example, are fliers for chamber ensembles, and Chautauqua’s “concert companies” often inserted elocution or dramatic sketches between musical numbers.8 Numerous ensembles attempted to distinguish themselves through novelties such as costumes, whistling, Swiss yodeling, folk dances, or bell ringing, and more specific headings such as “Alpine zither” or “Xylophone-marimbists” are useful in locating these; however, the entire texts of the fliers are not searchable. The appearance of a flier online does not indicate that a performer or ensemble appeared on the Chautauqua circuit; some merely aspired to do so, while others found success in different venues. The fliers are typically undated, and thus the date ranges provided for them are often uselessly wide. Even items with specific dates require further verification, as Redpath often kept misprinted promotional drafts alongside final copies.

Figure 2

Screenshot from Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, showing an Apollo Concert Company flier, accessed July 29, 2021,

Figure 2

Screenshot from Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, showing an Apollo Concert Company flier, accessed July 29, 2021,

Close modal

The collection’s digital platform itself has implications for researchers new to Chautauqua history. Previously hosted by the Library of Congress among its American Memory collections, the original Traveling Culture website was launched in 2001, funded by the National Digital Library competition. The previous site was a centralized hub for the collection’s digitized items, finding aids, and explanatory essays by Iowa archivist Richard Kolbet and Chautauqua scholar Charlotte Canning.9 However, when the Library of Congress consolidated its digital offerings, leaving partnering institutions to manage their own items internally, the digitized Chautauqua materials became part of the Iowa Digital Library, an open-access repository for the entirety of the university’s digital collections. To access Traveling Culture, users must select an Advanced Search function so as to avoid an open-ended search into more than one million digitized items. While the newer platform offers high-resolution images (600 dpi), detailed viewing functions, and hyperlinked metadata, the accompanying essays are now buried in a series of hidden links leading to the physical collection’s original html finding aid. These thoughtful writings once provided important historical contexts for users lacking the requisite knowledge of now forgotten Chautauqua circuits, and without them the collection’s digital materials have the potential to appear as acontextual documents alongside items from some 137 other university collections. In addition, despite the thousands of digitized publicity fliers for individual acts, a voluminous amount of primary source material in Iowa’s Redpath collection remains undigitized: bureau publications, correspondence, performance schedules, pay records, runs of industry periodicals, sheet music, other print ephemera, and, in a related collection, sound recordings of Chautauqua performers. The metadata for digitized fliers does not indicate whether correspondence with the Redpath bureau exists in the University of Iowa Libraries’ collection, as it does for the most active performers, requiring a separate search of the physical collection’s finding aid. Researchers should likewise consult the numerous memoirs penned by period performers, as well as press reports for specific Chautauqua locations. Despite the difficulties in using Traveling Culture, musicologists who familiarize themselves with the nature of the musical repertoire heard during the Chautauqua movement, a now unfamiliar mixture of European classical selections and American songs located somewhere between the highbrow classical canon and popular musical genres, will be closer to understanding early twentieth-century American musical life.

Re-envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th-Century Visual and Material Culture

Like that of Traveling Culture, the usefulness of the Re-envisioning Japan site might not be immediately apparent to music scholars. The creation of Joanne Bernardi, scholar of Japanese and of film and media studies, the site comprises 1,370 digitized artifacts, some of which are Japanese, but the majority of which were produced in the United States and elsewhere. Bernardi has described how the objects, originating from her personal collection, became part of a “project grounded in a uniquely syncretic relationship between material and digital worlds.”10 Re-envisioning Japan is organized by categories, each generic type being accessible from a single web page. The largest category is that of 773 postcards, alongside 66 examples of “print ephemera,” 75 brochures and pamphlets, and 47 photos. The 221 partially digitized “bibliographic materials,” many of them travel guides, consist of only covers and limited internal pages, but also range from children’s magazines to a 2005 playbill cover for Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. Eleven three-dimensional objects have been photographed for the site as well: fans, a doll, a saki cup, a disturbing “atomic bomb dexterity game,” and more. Of most interest to music scholars are 93 films, more than 50 of which are fully available on the site, and 84 pieces of sheet music. The wide-ranging small gauge films (16 mm, 8 mm) include educational films, commercials, cartoons, news reels, and amateur films. The complete Re-envisioning Japan collection, including a total of around 200 musical works and other materials that have not been digitized, is available for study at the University of Rochester Libraries, the host of the site.

Other than music in the films and the sheet music (discussed below), musical culture makes only sporadic appearances in the collection. Nonetheless, there are images of Japanese theatrical performers and musicians on a number of postcards, and the film Japan, the Frozen Moment (1964) features excerpts of bugaku, gagaku, noh, and kabuki. Most films will be more useful to film music scholars who are interested in Western conceptions of Japan, such as an episode of the animated TV series The Beatles from the mid-1960s that recounts the Fab Four’s fictional visit, the exotic accompaniment for the pseudo-Japanese advertisement for Joy dish detergent, or the scores for news films of historical events, such as the US War Department’s 1946 film A Tale of Two Cities, about the aftermath of the atomic bombs.

Re-envisioning Japan’s substantial accompanying bibliographies list publications by Bernardi and others about the site, primary and secondary sources, and online sites related to Japan, postcards, tourism studies, and film preservation. The site’s bibliographies and prose contextualization affirm its disciplinary home as the study of visual and material culture indicated in its title; thus, it lacks bibliography related to music, such as W. Anthony Sheppard’s recent Extreme Exoticism, Michael Saffle’s iconographic study of Asian imagery in American sheet music, and the “Poor Little Butterfly” chapter in Larry Hamberlin’s Tin Pan Opera, which discusses songs on the site that draw on the popularity of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.11 The lack of any musical context in the surrounding critical apparatus, at least, suggests that sheet music scores are conceived as another form of visual culture, static objects included primarily for their covers’ colorful imagery.

Remarkably, however, forty-six musical examples come to life in stylish recorded performances by pianist Philip C. Carli, joined by vocalists from the Eastman School of Music. Dating from 1885 to 1945, the sheet music primarily consists of Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1900s and 1910s, though there are also piano pieces, as well as excerpts from operetta and musicals. All of these genres are represented in the performances, though it is not clear how specific works were selected for recording. Stereotypical tropes from the songs’ covers dominate their texts, especially that of the exoticized Japanese woman, demurely hiding behind her fan (see figure 3). Lyrics express the sentiments of Western men overtaken by desire, meeting their lovers amid blooming cherry trees, under Japanese lanterns or an Eastern moon, or sailors or soldiers longing to return to their “Geisha girl” far away in “Old Japan.”12 Related musical accompaniments vary from standardized Tin Pan Alley styles to obviously exoticized treatments. One of the numerous advantages of so many recorded examples is that listeners can begin to hear subtle yet audible markers of Western conceptions of “Japaneseness,” such as occasional grace notes or measures of gapped scale melodies in the less obviously exotic works.

Figure 3

Screenshot from Re-envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th-Century Visual and Material Culture, showing the cover of the sheet music for Chas. L. Johnson and J. Stanley Royce, “Where the Lanterns Glow” (Chicago: Forster Music, 1919), accessed July 29, 2021,

Figure 3

Screenshot from Re-envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th-Century Visual and Material Culture, showing the cover of the sheet music for Chas. L. Johnson and J. Stanley Royce, “Where the Lanterns Glow” (Chicago: Forster Music, 1919), accessed July 29, 2021,

Close modal

Many of the piano compositions are marches or two-steps, some of which are rousingly performed by Carli. While the site contains some American anti-Japanese propaganda songs from World War II, there is more music from ca. 1904–5 related to the Russo-Japanese War. Recorded songs from musicals sometimes have a minimally audible relationship to Japan; “Meet Me Where the Lanterns Glow,” for example, is a conventional waltz love song, despite its origins in the Broadway show A Trip to Japan (1909). In peace activist Elisabeth Johnson’s “All o’ the World a Home” (1926), Japan is just one of an international array of countries. Nonetheless, the broader ranges of the collection demonstrate just how far Western conceptions of Japan permeated American musical culture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For all Re-envisioning Japan’s related thematic content, the amount of metadata for single items is fairly minimal. Slides by Bernardi’s students labeled “Encounters” feature brief contextualizing texts that function somewhat like museum placards, yet these are available for only a few objects. The original version of the website was organized by topical relationships—wartime propaganda, advertising, missionary work, expositions, etc.—designations that do not appear in the newer version. In the revised site, objects can be sorted by title, creator, and date added to the collection, yet the Advanced Search function is often less than useful. For example, terms like “piano” or “song” do not call up all related items, though the latter does retrieve postcards that contain the musical notation for songs or references to songs. Even though the site’s previous version is far less detailed overall (lacking full scores, for example), some users may also wish to refer to this earlier incarnation while it is still extant. Despite limited subject access, Re-envisioning Japan is small enough that it can be browsed in order not to miss items of interest for scholars of popular music, film music, musical theater, exoticism, transnationalism, and more broadly, race and gender.

As the “Encounters” demonstrate, the site could also be pedagogically useful for student exploration of primary source materials. The lack of a paywall for all three sites considered here makes them easily available for undergraduate research activities or graduate courses in historical methodologies. The ease of access and historical variety of selections in the Met collection and Re-envisioning Japan create ideal opportunities for student work akin to the curatorial projects recently proposed by Elizabeth Clendinning and Andrew Gurstelle.13 The Met site’s “Notes from the Archive” also offer models for blogging assignments or similar short-form writing exercises that could readily include data and artifacts in the Met’s digital collections. Traveling Culture breaks from the usual textbook coverage of the early twentieth century by providing a strong counterpoint to modernism and metropolitan concert life as well as indicating the period’s prevalence of female performers. What is more, each of these collections raises critical questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion in American musical cultures. Chautauqua’s highly curated waspy ideals, the Met’s reverence for a Western European canon, and the exoticism and anti-Japanese sentiment reflected in Re-envisioning Japan highlight overt and covert histories of white supremacy for important classroom discussions aimed at deconstructing long-standing imbalances.

All three sites provide numerous entry points for students and scholars alike. Although users will undoubtedly recognize that interfacing with a digital surrogate is not the same as encountering a physical item, the contents of these collections offer research opportunities for a wide range of projects. Yet even when faced with eight thousand Chautauqua fliers or over eighty pieces of Japan-related sheet music, researchers should not be seduced by the myth of completeness that is sometimes suggested by large collections of digitized material. Each site warrants due diligence in considering related primary and secondary sources, but with proper contextualization their features offer novel sources of historical information. The provision of recordings in Re-envisioning Japan, for example, could be a model for similar sites, more of which should follow its lead in providing audible representations of their holdings. Hearing as well as seeing its contents should remind us that for all the benefits of digitized material objects, they represent but one facet embedded in the larger webs of cultural meanings that surround art forms.


Mary Ellis Peltz, “The Metropolitan Opera Archives,” American Archivist 30, no. 3 (July 1967): 471–75, here 471.


Gerald Fitzgerald, ed., Annals of the Metropolitan Opera: The Complete Chronicles of Performances and Artists (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989).


For examples of recent uses of the database in scholarship, see Nelson Neal and Diane Harrison, “Hemsley Winfield: First African American Modern Dancer Contracted by the Metropolitan Opera,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 40, no. 1 (January 2018): 137–51, and Maurice Wheeler, “An Unlikely Champion: Rudolf Bing and the Demise of Jim Crow at the Metropolitan Opera,” Notes 75, no. 2 (December 2018): 207–36.


Fiona Cameron, “Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects—Traditional Concerns, New Discourses,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, ed. Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 49–75, here 54, 56, 57.


See Joanna Sassoon, “Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” in Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, ed. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (New York: Routledge, 2004), 196–213; Jasmine Elizabeth Burns, “Digital Facsimiles and the Modern Viewer: Medieval Manuscripts and Archival Practice in the Age of New Media,” Art Documentation 33, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 148–67; and Paul Conway, “Digital Transformations and the Archival Nature of Surrogates,” Archival Science 15, no. 1 (March 2015): 51–69.


See Charlotte Canning, The Most American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005).


Paige Lush lists all performers in Music in the Chautauqua Movement: From 1874 to the 1930s (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013), 196–207.


See Marian Wilson Kimber, The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), ch. 7.


Charlotte Canning, “What was Chautauqua?,” December 2000,, and Richard Kolbet, “About the Digital Collection,” January 2001,, University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, accessed July 29, 2021.


Joanne Bernardi and Nora Dimmock, “Creative Curating: The Digital Archives as Argument,” in Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, ed. Jentery Sayers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 187–97, here 187.


W. Anthony Sheppard, Extreme Exoticism: Japan in the American Musical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Michael Saffle, “Images of China and Japan in Turn-of-the-Century American Sheet Music,” Music in Art  42, nos. 1–2 (2017): 329–40; Larry Hamberlin, Tin Pan Opera: Operatic Novelty Songs in the Ragtime Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ch. 5.


Given the racial stereotypes that proliferate in the collection, particularly in the sheet music, the inclusion of some related critical commentary on the site would be worthwhile.


Elizabeth A. Clendinning and Andrew W. Gurstelle, “Object Lessons: Teaching Musicology through Museum Collections,” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 11, no. 1 (2021): 22–45.