“66,000 opera companies across America”

A lively discussion is happening at Tony Woodcock’s blog, but what’s intriguing me a bit are some of the things a poster with the username of Digoweli is saying.  In particular, this excerpt from the post linked:

What has happened to us from 1900 when there were 66,000 opera companies across America with 1,300 Opera houses in the farm state of Iowa alone and Opera companies even in the Indian Territory before it was Oklahoma? Opera for Indians, you won’t see that in the movies. You won’t see that the color barrier was broken at the Metropolitan Opera in 1925 by an Osage Indian soprano either. I have a picture on my wall of the opera house in Miami, Indian Territory in 1900. The same place that birthed the great American Indian ballerina Moscelyn Larkin.

I didn’t find these facts in music school. I found them at home in Oklahoma and from non-music historians like Lawrence Levine (“Highbrow/Lowbrow, The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” Harvard). I found the Iowa figure from an economist for the NYTimes and the WSJournal Robert Cook, in his (“The Winner-Take All Society” Frank and Cook, Free Press) Neither Frank or Levine are musicians but they are not blind to what has happened here. They also knew virgin territory when they saw it.

Music historians Crawford and Dizikes made a start but couldn’t get out of the double bind artistic folks are in. Mentioning a cultural economic virus in the Arts is like mentioning a sexually transmitted disease in polite company. Art is supposed to create health and harmony. It’s supposed to validate systems not prove that they are flawed. So we erase the flaws. There is no real history of America’s arts in performance. The companies, the great performers, the battles, the victories. There is no real history of the legacy of the great pedagogical traditions of Europe and their teachers in American Institutions either. It’s as if everyone was hatched from nothing with no tradition and no awareness of how they got here and no awareness of what has been lost. Except I would exempt violinists who know about Wolfgang’s lessons with Leopold because they still play the exercises and pianists who have a strong historic thread in their teaching in their teaching as well. Who on this list knows who William Thorner was or even Samuel Margolis? People who shaped what we hear in the present and then disappeared. But where did they come from? People without a history are people with ancestors and culture. As a result we don’t know what we’ve lost nor the health of what we have.

But if music historians will not tell the story, others will because the story must be told. From the thousands of Opera Houses in 1900 to the present with 210 professional companies most with no ensemble, pick up orchestras and no repertory, is a measured 98% decline. If that isn’t dying what is? The poor muse is sick and yet everyone is in denial.

Complex Classical Art is dying to most of America except for the upper 2% who consider themselves to have enough for their own needs. It’s time we looked this in the face. You are a young man, I am not. I have no illusions. I don’t have time for illusions and I’ve made my living in the 2% for fifty years and still do. There are answers but there must be discussions beyond blogs and everywhere and most of all there must be an evangelical message about the value of complex Art and what it means if you lose it. Why we are comfortable with an America that is brutish in the world, ignorant of culture and feral? It was David Kay, the U.S. Arms Inspector, who blamed it on American cultural ignorance that we went to war in Iraq. What has the Arts failed at teaching to America’s citizens? First you have to know what you are for and what is your purpose as an Artist in the scheme of things.

I would like to see where he got his numbers, obviously, but what he’s saying isn’t unreasonable (the lack of documentation of phenomena like this in the history books).

My response (which is still in moderation as it has many links):

I’m interested in some of the things you say, Digoweli, though I must say I’m just a little bit skeptical about the numbers you reference. On the other hand, I have no doubt about some of the other issues you bring up regarding the [general] failure of orthodox music training systems and the number of music graduates in this country (though I think far too much is being made of the latter issue).

As far as “Complex Classical Art dying” in America, well, I think it’s a bit like Peter said–some of the institutions are going to fade away, but as a whole it won’t die. And contrary to the heralds of some popular music methods of re-invigoration (and let’s face it, as I’ve said above, the pop music industry as a whole isn’t doing so great either) there’s still plenty of growth in “Complex Classical Art” in the US. Just happens to be the case that more folks are getting interested in, well, non-dead-white-European-male music which just happens to (coincidentally or not) correspond to a changing US Demographic.

I think that’s where some of NEC’s initiatives are really progressive. Things like the Boston Latin-American Orchestra; their Entrepreneur program; and, if it is the case their Music History and Musicology department offers what Katarina Markovic says above, then at least some music students will be a little bit more prepared for entering a changing musical climate.

While I have reservations about institutionalizing some of the things that NEC is, if nothing else it’s an explicit sign of what’s already changing in the US. Some folks just aren’t as interested in the Western legacy (or Western pop music for that matter) anymore and now feel a bit more enfranchised so are focusing on the kinds of art ensembles and “pop” music that matters more to them. And I think that’s just the other side of the coin of what we might cll a Eurocentric-bias in Art music that you also seem to be highlighting with our inability to recognize the history in the US of art music institutions.


  1. The 1,300 opera companies for Iowa figure is from the economist Robert Frank at Cornell. He commented on it in an interview in the Washingtonian Magazine on his book “The Winner Take All Society.” I then called him to check the source and it was good. Also there is a lot of information about early opera houses in San Francisco, New York City and New Orleans in the Massey Lectures from Harvard by Lawrence W. Levine titled Highbrow, Lowbrow, The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” Harvard press. John Dizikes implies the massive number in “Opera in America, a Cultural History” although he doesn’t seem to understand how it could be. The opera houses in Iowa were Dutch while the ones in Missouri were Czech. The Indian Opera Houses in Indian Territory were Italian since Indian families began sending there children abroad for school as a result of mineral wealth. Many of these small houses are still in existence as other things including becoming Vaudeville and then movie houses. But first they were Opera houses and they had real opera at least a few times a year which is what most of our 210 professional opera houses (Opera America) produce today. The 66,000 number is an estimate that I put together for a White Paper for the Florentine Symposium in Washington, D.C. in May 2004. I drew all of the numbers I had which considerable and then estimated what the parts of the country I didn’t have figures for would have been. The figure has stood up well. Jobs for 66,000 tenors at least twice to three times a year. I believe it’s Crawford’s “America’s Musical Life” that lists the figures for San Francisco and “Strong on Music” for the New York scene in the 19th century by Brodsky. Music schools should pay more attention to the history of performance and the business than they do. That’s my opinion. Digoweli


    • Excellent–thanks, Digoweli! I had recently discovered that the small town (really kind of a burb of Louisville, KY) actually had an Opera House in the earlier apart of the century. I haven’t combed the local archives to see what kinds of productions they put on, but did find some archival photos from a Mikado production they did.

      Thanks so much for this!


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