Opera in America: New World Overtures

Opera has flourished in the United States. But how did this supposedly ‘elite’ art form become so deep-rooted in a nation devoted to popular culture and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal? Daniel Snowman explains.

There was opera of a sort in America before independence in 1776, but it had a chequered history. Theatre of any kind was condemned by the Pilgrim Fathers. Life in Puritan New England, they preached, was tough and the daily fight for food, shelter and survival made virtually any form of entertainment superfluous. It was not a part of the European cultural heritage they were keen to transplant to their City on a Hill. Music may have been permissible, but only for liturgical purposes. Further south, a more tolerant attitude developed. Travelling theatrical troupes began to appear up and (mostly) down the Atlantic seaboard and productions including music were commonly dubbed ‘operas’. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, produced in New York in 1750, fed a vogue for ‘ballad operas’ that strung together a sequence of popular airs linked by rudimentary dialogue and a simple, feel-good plot. By the time of the revolution, a few cultured enthusiasts would have known the works of the current European masters: Thomas Jefferson played the latest airs on the fiddle and Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica and devised a theory of melodic and harmonic consonance.

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