When opera was popular

I‘ve heard people say that the Met Opera live screenings in movie theaters show that opera is popular. I don’t quite see that (the people who come are older, and the Met’s data show that virtually all have been to an opera before). But even if the screenings did demonstrate some kind of opera popularity, it would be a very modest, very watered-down kind. Compared, that is, to what we’d see if we traveled back 100 years, to the days when classical music ruled unchallenged both in high and in popular culture, and when its audience was young.
So let’s take that trip! Here’s a wonderful — absolutely wonderful — New York Times story, published in April 23, 1922 — about Geraldine Farrar’s farewell performance at the Met. Farrar, of course, was the gorgeous diva (and, for a while, a silent film star) who was famous for, among much else, her screaming young girl fans, whom the world called “Gerryflappers.”


And they were out in force for Farrar’s farewell, as this very vivid, very colloquial newspaper story shows. (I had no idea the Times could unbend that much, back then.)

Flappers, of course, were the brash, hip, outrageous young girls of the 1920s, who smoked, drank, made out, drove cars, and did all kinds of other things women of the time weren’t supposed to do. Also in the audience, if we believe the story, were debutantes, who would have been about 18, and “sub-debs,” who would have been even younger. (So, among much else, this story is yet another demonstration of how young the classical audience used to be.)

The two singers (mentioned only by their last names) who deferred to Farrar on stage were baritone Giuseppe De Luca and tenor Giovanni Martinelli, two of the world’s top opera stars. The opera Farrar sang (identified only by its title) was by Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci, and was a worldwide hit in its time, though it’s largely forgotten now. (To judge from some excerpts I’ve heard online, it’s got some compelling music.) And, finally, when David Belasco’s name pops up, everyone back then would have known him as a hugely popular playwright (he wrote the play Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was adapted from), and, beyond that, a major theater tycoon.

Read on, and see what opera was like when it really was popular.


Opera Pet Crowned With Tiara
and Buried in Flowers After
Finale of Zaza.


Miss Farrar Gives Hint After Metro- 
politan Audience Gives Her  

Tumultuous Farewell.

Geraldine Farrar has gone and the Gerry-flappers are disconsolate. The American singer who has won many triumphs in her sixteen years with the Metropolitan Opera Company, won her greatest triumph yesterday when as Zaza she sang her adieu to New York opera audiences. She was showered with flowers, crowned with a jeweled tiara, hailed with “bravos” and tears. She intimated that although opera will see her no more in New York, she may appear as a star under David Belasco’s management.

It was a unique occasion at the staid opera house which has seen the beginning and close of so many notable careers. Other singers of renown have retired there, but most of them, Sembrich, Fremstad and Eames, more or less conventionally. But Gerry could never leave that way. The flapper claque, as ardent a group of worshippers as ever paid tribute to their idol, wept and shouted at their Gerry, strung banners across the orchestra pit over the heads of the audience and flapped generally and unrestrainedly.

After the last curtain they flocked to the street, and with them this time were many older men and women, Farrar fans. Fortieth Street was filled between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, and traffic policemen gave up all attempt to keep a lane through lt. Ecstatic debutantes and “sub-debs” perched on fire escapes with bouquets and strings of ribbon, ready to shower their idol when she appeared.

On Broadway With Tiara.

They shrieked and waved when she came around the corner with the big American flag that had been presented to her, and the tiara on her head. She had not bothered to remove her makeup. She climbed to an automobile, and like a carnival queen, waved kisses and dodged flowers. Some enthusiastic stage hands had planned to pull her up Broadway by a rope attached to the car, after the fashion set by Jenny Lind once upon a time when New York was younger and barouches [carriages] were in style. But a motor car is another matter, and the rope got tangled up in the wheels.

Traffic was stalled for five minutes. The crowd eddied around her car, four husky policeman under Captain Howard pushing emotional admirers off the running board as fast as they climbed up. Farrar waved and smiled and threw kisses to them all. The flag waved, and the tiara shone. Excited men worked at the rope. At last it was clear, a toot on the horn and, hastened by a fussy police car behind, the automobile party forsook the rope and shot up Broadway at the head of a trailing procession of Gerry-flappers two blocks long.

The Metropolitan was jammed from floor to roof yesterday for Farrar’s last appearance, which was also the next to the last performance of the year, a season which has set a record for successful opera. People stood two and three deep behind the railing, and the only vacant seats were a few in the famous horseshoe. Farrar was hailed with a burst of applause when she appeared during the first act, at the conclusion of which she was almost swamped by a Niagara of flowers.

Audience Rises In Tribute.

After the second act the flappers got in some of their best work, and flowers fell on the stage until it was covered, an occasional bouquet hitting Farrar. One of them landed on De Lucas’s head. A tiara, with its scarlet cushion and a sceptre were handed over the footlights, and after a moment’s hesitation Farrar placed the mimic crown upon her head and stood bowing, with the sceptre in her hand. The flappers went wild.

But when a big American flag in a standard, its base surrounded by roses, was placed on the stage beside her the audience, moved by a sudden impulse, rose to pay tribute to the fame this American singer had won. Farrar evidently was more moved by this demonstration than she was by the noisy acclaim of the young folk. She lifted a corner of the flag and pressed it to her lips and was hailed with shouts off “Bravo!” De Luca, beside her, his arms full of flowers which he had picked up, and Martinelli, on the other side, with a handful of bouquets, smiled their encouragement at Farrar. She snatched a rose, pinned it in De Luca’s lapel and threw an arm around his neck as she kissed him. Both he and Martinelli frequently waved her into the centre of the stage alone, signifying that it was her day and the tributes so dear to a singer were hers alone.

Demonstration at Close.

There was recognition on the part of the audience of the drama in the situation at the end of the opera, when Farrar in her part of Zaza fell swooning on the floor and the last curtain fell over her. People jumped to their feet, calling for her, and from every part of the lower floor men and women and girls ran forward until there was a solid mass of faces looking up at her and cheering as she appeared. Some flappers unfurled a huge banner that stretched across the pit with the words on it, “Hurrah, Farrar. Farrar, Hurrah.” Some persons in the balconies protested that they could not see, and at Farrar’s request the banner fell fluttering to the seats below. She raised her aims and the house became silent.

“Twenty years ago I slaved that achievement might be mine,” she said, “that I might be a prophetess in my own country, but I never thought it would be like this. There are two folks down there in a corner who are probably shedding a tear now, two who gave everything that I might have my start, but I think that their parents’ hearts are proud of this moment.

“I don’t want a tear shed in this house today,” she went on and was interrupted by a sobbing flapper who cried, “I c-c-can’t help it, I’ve wept bushels,” while the crowd roared with laughter.

“I am leaving this institution because I want to, but that does not mean farewell to you,” she continued. “I have many plans. I see on this side a dear man whom perhaps you have not seen, David Belasco. He is a very tempting person, he has whispered in my ear, but we will keep our secret a little while. These have been sixteen years of happiness, such great happiness that if I died tonight, I would not regret it. I love you all dearly, but we are weary, and we must say good-bye.”

Miss Farrar has sung for twenty years. She began at the Berlin Royal Opera and made her debut at the Metropolitan Nov. 26, 1906, as Juliette in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.” It was the only time in all Caruso’s eighteen years in America that he yielded the opening night of a season to another star. She has retired to go on concert tours, and it has been estimated that she will be able to earn $250,000 a year. Her leaving the Metropolitan was due to a dispute over a contract which offered her only a half season. Her intimation yesterday that she might appear under Belasco’s management has been the first suggestion that she would go on the speaking stage.

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  1. Linda Fowler says

    I wonder who wrote it up for the Times? A really engaging, modern-sounding read for that era, probably on an unforgiving deadline. And David Belasco, another larger-than-life character, got his kicks from dressing up as a clergyman. Still haunts his old theater in midtown …

  2. Jeffrey Sultanof says

    Marketing is/was the key. Farrar was in the movies; Caruso made movies too. Farrar was in the papers all the time as a fashion icon.

    When the Tonight Show was hosted by Johnny Carson, Pavarotti and other opera singers were on regularly. People got to know them; they became celebrities. When The Odd Couple was on television, Tony Randall got Giorgio Tozzi and other opera stars on as actors.

    Where is the opportunity on television in particular to see and hear opera performers so that people can experience them and the music, and see that the genre is not elitist? That’s the difference.

  3. John Parfrey says

    Audiences for classical music have indeed declined, and for understandable reasons. In 1922, the US consumer demographic came primarily from Europe. Today we are much more multicultural. Starting in the 30s and 40s a new genre of popular music for young people began to emerge. Starting in the 50s, a decades long trend started that would deemphasize arts education in schools (where many young people first encountered western classical music forms) in favor of science education (because of Sputnick)and other subjects du jour until No Child Left Behind stressed math and reading over other disciplines (including music). So I believe that the decline of audiences for classical music — including opera — is a natural result of these and other trends. And I say that as a 65 life-long classical music lover. I don’t think classical music is going to die, but it is definitely being repositioned, and smaller markets are definitely going to have a tough go of it. That said, where I live in the greater Denver area — not known as a bulwark of high art — there are no fewer than EIGHT youth orchestras in the greater front range region extending from Pueblo to Fort Collins. So the art isn’t exactly dying.

    I really think that, like great art in other media, classical music will be always be around and that it could even undergo a renaissance of interest at some point. So while I’m not surprised that teenage girls aren’t falling at the feet of Renee Fleming the way their grandparents did for Geraldine Farrar, classical music as an art form isn’t in danger of extinction.