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AdvisorDissertation Awards

Advisor: Annegret Fauser

Dissertation Title: Opera in English: Class, and Culture in America, 1878–1910

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Dissertation Abstract:

My dissertation considers the social, cultural, and musical implications of European opera performed in English translation in the United States between 1878 and 1910. Moderately-priced English-language opera productions were caught in a middle ground between European opera performed in foreign languages, which was expensive to attend and considered high art, and comic operetta which was perceived to be a cheap night of harmless entertainment for the middle class with little artistic worth. Many English-language opera companies tried to position themselves as high art at the people’s prices, but by 1910 this strategy was failing, leading to the end of attempts to use opera in English as a way to create a uniquely American form of opera. 

The critical discourse around opera in English translation centered on four areas of contention— the development of a bourgeois class in the United States that associated opera with wealth; the appropriate relationship between a new American culture and older European models; the aesthetics of performing opera in translation; and shifting notions of high and low art. I examine the ways this discourse played out in a variety of contexts. Through the interpretation and integration of a rich set of primary documents, I describe the business and marketing practices of the operatic industry from the founding of a new traveling opera company to its inevitable demise. Using three representative examples, I show how the discourse also contributed to the use of opera in projects of cultural, economic, and social uplift for women (such as prominent English-language singer Emma Juch), African Americans (like baritone and opera impresario Theodore Drury) and the residents of smaller cities (in this case Raleigh, North Carolina). Finally, the discourse around English-language opera also found a place in the reception and performance of individual pieces. I concentrate on Bizet’s Carmen, which premiered in New York in 1878. After establishing how several English-language companies presented the opera based on evidence from scores, libretti, and other production documents, I analyze critical reception of the work, which became a focus for American anxieties about class, race, the nature of national identity, and the proper role of women in society. 

By the end of the Gilded Age, binary constructions of culture in the United States—high art versus low art, entertainment for the middle class versus cultural transcendence for the elite, and American music versus European imports—left little room for opera in English translation. In the absence of any successful operas written by native composers, as well as financially viable English-language companies, the niche for opera in English translation all but disappeared. Rather than serving as a path to the creation of a truly American operatic style, after World War I the goals of English-language companies became less ambitious and centered on expanding opera’s audience. 

Recipient of the Glen Haydon Dissertation Award


Dr. Turner is currently an Adjunct Instructor in Music History at North Carolina State University. She has published and presented in numerous venues, including the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Journal of Musicological Research.