Grand Opera in San Francisco
Grand Opera in San Francisco
Mad for Opera. While tall tales and the Davy Crockett almanacs celebrated the rough-hewn culture of the frontier, the West was not without pretensions to elite art. In San Francisco during the gold-rush years grand opera grew into a popular entertainment. Opera had its devotees in Chicago and New Orleans, but it was San Francisco that, as one historian has put it, went “mad for opera.” Some scholars have explained this as the city’s attempt to emulate the East, an assertion that San Francisco could be as cultured and sophisticated as the East and even Europe. Another view is that the melodrama of opera—with its heroic striving, pledges and betrayals, and shifting fortunes—mirrored the volatile and sometimes violent nature of life during the gold boom.
Opera’s Debut. Opera’s probable debut in San Francisco was in 1850, when Mathilda Korsinsky, a German-born singer, sang an aria from Verdi’s Ernani during the intermission between a drama and a farce at the Jenny Lind Theatre. According to a review in the Evening Picayune, Korsinsky was “rapturously encored,” and other operatic performances followed. In early 1851 Italian singer Innocenzo Pellegrini presented the first complete opera in San Francisco, Bellini’s La sonnambula. The Alta California reported that a “crowded house greeted the opening” and “torrents of applause … continually broke forth.” Sometimes, in fact, audiences could be a bit too enthusiastic. It was not uncommon for audiences to yell, groan, or hiss during performances; fist fights occasionally broke out, sometimes to be settled as armed duels outside the theatre. Nevertheless, by 1853 San Francisco had its first resident company, The Pacific Musical Troupe, and by 1854 city audiences supported performances by four different operatic sopranos: Anna Bishop, Catherine Hayes, Clarissa Cailly, and Anna Thillon. In the spring of 1855 Bishop and the Italian prima donna Clotilda Barili-Thorn appeared together in three sold-out performances of Don Giovanni. Despite its popularity, opera, because it was expensive to produce, was not very profitable, and as a depression hit San Francisco in 1855, performances virtually disappeared. Reviewing a poorly attended performance of Meyerbeer’s Rober le diable, the Alta California noted that “these are hard times, and of that there can be no better evidence than the Metropolitan … the house was thin last evening.” Staged opera would not return to San Francisco until 1859.
Maguire’s Revival. The revival, when it came, was brought about mainly through the efforts of Thomas Maguire. Maguire came to San Francisco from New York, where, it was said, he was nothing more than an illiterate hack driver and bartender. Whatever the truth, in San Francisco Maguire was a gentlemanly cultural impresario, opening lavishly decorated opera houses not only in San Francisco but also in Virginia City, Nevada. In 1858 Maguire and an Italian tenor, Eugenio Bianchi, staged a series of concerts. Bianchi and his wife, Giovanna, a soprano, sang arias and duets from Verdi operas. The programs proved “vastly popular,” according to the Alta, drawing the largest crowds “ever seen in the opera house.” In the spring of 1859 the Bianchis performed in a staged production of an entire opera, Verdi’s Il trovatore. The opera quickly became a favorite in San Francisco, selling roughly twenty thousand tickets over five months—in a city with a population estimated at fifty-five thousand. Despite a dispute between Maguire and the Bianchis, and occasional downturns in attendance, other operatic performances followed. For the October 1860 season Maguire’s Opera House opened with a festival of twelve successive nights of opera, each featuring a different production. The Civil War would soon dampen interest in the arts, and Maguire would ultimately face bankruptcy, but for this brief moment San Francisco was at the forefront of opera in the United States. The music critic for the Alta proclaimed, “the opera has become a regular institution among us,” or as Maguire is reported to have said, “I lost thirty thousand dollars; but didn’t I give them opera—eh?”
Ronald L. Davis, A History of Music in American Life: Volume 1: The Formative Years, 1620–1865 (Malabar, Fla.: Robert Krieger, 1982);