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Before The Curtain
Of The Barytone
Of The Opera In The Concrete
Of The Prima Donna
Of The Primo Basso
Of The Suggeritore Or Prompter
Of The Tenore
The Opera In The Abstract

Physiology Of The Opera

Before The Curtain

"A neat, snug study on a winter's night;
A book, friend, single lady, or a glass
Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,
Are things which make an English evening pass,
Though certes by no means so grand a sight,
As is a theatre, lit up with gas."--BYRON.

The night is a cold one; the snow is falling in large, heavy flakes, and
those who are fond of the frigid, but exhilarating amusement of
sleighing, are in hopes that by the morrow they will be able to pass
like lightning from one part of the city to the other; in a sleigh
decked with warm, gaily trimmed furs; filled with a merry company, and
drawn by two high-headed, dashing trotters. The gas lights are just
discernible from corner to corner. The number of people in the streets
is steadily decreasing, and the sound of their foot-fall is muffled in
the snow. About the theatres and the opera house, however, crowds of the
idle and curious, gaping at those who are entering these buildings, make
it necessary for the police to pace to and fro, ordering back the more
presumptuous loiterers, who press forward and obstruct the approach to
the doors.

Query? Why does the crowd always stare at those who are going into a
theatre or opera? The latter are attired somewhat strangely to be sure,
but still they don't look exactly like Choctaws.

The cab and chaise-men muffled up in their cold-defying great-coats and
woolen comforters, are opening the doors of their several vehicles, out
of which ladies enveloped in cloaks and hoods are dismounting under
cover of umbrellas, held probably by the "best of brothers," but more
probably by gentlemen in no way related to them. In the opera house all
is bustle and commotion. The officials are selling tickets, receiving
tickets, and directing to their places bevies of ladies and gentlemen
bewildered in a maze of passages. The audience is impatiently preparing
itself for a delightful evening's entertainment. The dandies, who are
so unfortunate as not to have accompanied ladies have already brought
themselves up to the attack, and have levelled their opera-glasses on
all the points where they know well-established objects of admiration
are likely to be found. Now and then they bow their recognition in a
reserved inclination, or in a careless smiling way that bespeaks the
freedom of familiar intimacy.

The fast-men are standing at the doors in knots of three and four,
talking over the last trot of Suffolk, or the probable chance of victory
in the next day's dog-fight, and making a few, no doubt very fast, but
not very proper allusions to the shoulders of some rather sparingly
habited belles. The Cubans in the parquette, who, by the by, during
their sojourn in this country will best preserve their liberty by
remaining north of Mason and Dixon's line, are clearing their voices in
very doubtful Spanish, for those animated bravos, which we must admit
they always administer in the very best taste, both as to time and
quantity. Here and there, some lone young man, desolate in a crowd, who
has seldom before been exposed to the full blaze of the all-discovering
gas light, not exactly knowing what to do with himself, is
endeavouring, with a fictitious indifference, to fill up the vacancies
of attention by smoothing down the stubborn folds of badly selected
white kids. Five collegians just escaped from the studious
universities for a high week in town, have established themselves all
together, and commenced a running commentary, carried on chiefly in the
Virginia dialect, on men, women, and things, much to the annoyance of a
very foreign gentleman behind them--so foreign that he is almost
black--who looks stilettos at his cheerful but over-loquacious
neighbours. One youth in an excessively white, though unpleasantly stiff
cravat, is assisting an equally stiff old chaperon into her place, at
the expense of great physical efforts, till his cheeks are thereby
suffused with a tint strongly resembling the color of a juvenile beet,
while the distended veins of his forehead would make a fine anatomical
study for the laborious medical student, if that fabulous biped were
still extant. The chaperon being disposed of, four young ladies under
her surveillance, two in opera cloaks and hoods, and two in
antediluvian mantles and pre-adamitic head-gear, assuring the existence
of rural cousinship, by four minor efforts of the same gentleman, are
at length safely landed in their places. But now commences a new round
of confusion. Each of the four young ladies discovers that she has
placed herself on some article of clothing belonging to her companion.
Whereupon she half rises, and having drawn forth the disturbing
habiliment, resumes her former position: and as this movement is
performed by each one of them without regard to the order in which they
have placed themselves, and is repeated half a dozen times in as many
minutes, the unconscious fair ones become the subjects of the allusions
of the fast-men, who immediately institute comparisons between them and
various animate and inanimate objects. One of these gentlemen observing
that their motions remind him of a flock of aquatic fowl, known by the
name of divers, a facetious friend replies that probably he means diving
bells; which being considered an extremely happy pun, it meets with a
hearty laugh of approbation. But an ambitious fast wit, fearing that his
reputation is likely to be lost forever, if he remain silent, says that
the whole group of uneasy females recalls the line of Coleman,

"For what is so gay as a bag full of fleas."

This being regarded as the acme of brilliancy, there is no telling what
might be the consequences if their attention were not drawn into another
channel by the entrance of a distinguished belle, who is immediately
pronounced to be a "stunner" and the question is raised as to who the
man is who acts as "bottle holder," reference thereby being had to the
gentleman who is so polite as to hand the lady to her place, and aid her
in disposing of her divers little appliances of operatic necessity. The
belle scarcely takes her seat before she commences to hum snatches of
Italian airs, in a very careless indifferent way, just to show how much
she is at home in such a place, and probably to attract a little more

Query? Why do the handsomest women at an opera always talk and laugh
the loudest?

That portion of the audience comprised in the gentler sex is here in all
the attraction of natural loveliness and adventitious ornament, putting
to flight a notion once prevalent, that beauty when unadorned is then
adorned the most.

The noise of conversation which now lulls, now swells out in gentle
crescendos, is chiefly the production of this taciturn part of the
audience. All at once the gas is let on in a gush of light, the buzz of
voices, which up to this time has been carried on in a subdued tone,
bursts out into full force, with a suddenness that seems to render it
probable that the conversation has been issuing all the while from the
gas jets. The augmented light brings down another volley from the foci
of a thousand lorgnettes. At this moment the musicians begin to enter
the orchestra which has been void of occupants all the evening, with the
exception of one meaningless old fellow, who has been attempting to
restore order among the stands, seats, and books, but whose laudable
efforts have ended in what every single gentleman at lodgings knows all
endeavours to "set things to rights," are sure to effect--a state of
affairs in which confusion is considerably worse confounded. But after
all a music-stand must be adjusted by the performer himself; no one can
put the hat of another on the head of the latter so as to be comfortable
to him. The latter must pose it for himself. This law applies with
peculiar force to music-stands.

The violinists proceed to tighten or slacken the hair of their bows, to
throw back the coat collar, or stuff a white handkerchief under it, in
order to adjust the violin to the peculiar crook of each neck, with as
much apparent anxiety as if they had not been doing the same thing for
the last thirty years, and some of their heads had not become bald over
the sound-post. In the meantime, the other members of this well-bearded
corps are streaming in with their instruments under the arm, and are
placing their music books and lamps at the proper elevation on the
stands, all the while talking, nodding, and smiling as if rehearsing
half the day, and playing half the night, were a mighty good joke.

And then ascend to the highest parts of the house--to the regions of the
operatic "paradise," those most singular of all instrumental sounds,
those fifty or sixty antagonistic voluntaries with which all the
audience would voluntarily dispense, consisting of chromatics in twenty
different keys, violin octaves, harmonics, thirds and fifths, clarionet
shakes, flute staccatos, horn growlings, ophicleide rumblings,
triangular vibrations, and drum concussions.

"See to their desks Apollo's sons repair--
Swift rides the rosin o'er the horse's hair!
In unison their various tones to tune,
Murmurs the hautboy, growls the hoarse bassoon.
In soft vibration sighs the whispering lute,
Twang goes the harpsicord, too too the flute,
Brays the loud trumpet, squeaks the fiddle sharp,
Winds the French horn, and twangs the tingling harp."

About the time that the observer has made up in his mind an answer to
the following mental queries--how many nights the first violinist could
play without getting a crick in the neck--whether the flutist may not
sometime blow his eyes so far out of his head that he may never be able
to get them back again--how long it would take the operator on the
cornet a piston to learn to play on the magnetic telegraph--why such a
small man should be suffered to perform on such a big thing as an
ophicleide, and how a person with such a huge moustache can get the
piccola up to lips defended by such a bulwark of hair, a fermentation is
observable in the midst of this musical whirlpool, which indicates the
presence of some higher power. Place is given by the humble members of
the orchestra, and the director is seen to stand forth in the attitude
of mounting the tribunal from whence he guides his submissive subjects
with despotic sway. He is a neat figured little man, with a profusion of
methodically adjusted curls, a moustache that would render his
physiognomy excessively ferocious, if an occasional smile playing over
the distinguishable parts of his face, did not modify this expression.
He is attired in the costume of the ball room, bearing in his button
hole the most delicate rosebud of the conservatory, and in his perfectly
gloved hand, an amber headed baton, the sceptre of command. At his
appearance a wave of applause floats up from the audience, and the head
and breast of the director bend down to meet it in a graceful and
reverential bow, accompanied by a smile expressing the highest possible
amount of inward gratification. This little acknowledgment of a becoming
respect for the good opinion of the house is repeated once or twice, and
then with the air of a man who has important business on hand, he mounts
his elevated seat. He gives one or two magical taps on the stand, and
the chaos of sounds is annihilated with the exception of the
lamentations of one refractory violin, over which the owner has been for
the last half hour repeatedly, first inclining his head in a horizontal
position, and then tugging away at the screws. At this the director
seems to be much annoyed, and the poor violinist, more annoyed, mutters
to a companion that he wishes himself an unspeakably long way
hence--probably in Italy where he could procure some good strings.

The resisting violin having been brought to subjection, the director
casts an eye over the whole body of musicians, and having thrown back
his head and lifted up both arms, very much in the supposed attitude of
Ajax defying the thunder, he remains perfectly motionless for an
instant, and then brings forward the whole of his body from the hips
upwards, with a rapid and powerful jerk, which introduces his forehead
into close proximity with the musical score which he pretends to be
reading, the baton strikes the stand with a loud clap, and one old
drummer proceeds to touch the drum, but in so gentle a manner, that it
sounds as if, instead of using the sticks he were tossing some grains of
shot on it. You now tremble for the safety of the director, and you
enter into an arithmetical calculation with yourself, the basis of which
is, that if the director by such a dangerous inclination of the person
can only bring one poor drummer into movement, what amount of bodily
labour he will be compelled to undergo, in order to operate on all that
concourse of musicians. But your fears are dissipated in a few moments,
for you discover that great sounds and little sounds are accompanied
with about the same degree of gesticulatory emphasis. In the meantime
some horns have commenced to blow on a very small scale, not hard
enough, you would suppose, to drive the dust out of them, and if the
piston of the cornet did not rattle so, you would pronounce its playing
all a sham. The violins and flutes begin to be audible and the
violinists are suddenly struck with a simultaneous desire to pick the
strings, just as if that would make any music. All the other instruments
are now doing duty in very feeble tones, and you take a look round the
house to see who are there; and you wonder why that particular family of
Smiths, with whom you have the pleasure of an acquaintance has not yet
appeared. You think Miss Julia Brown's hair arranged with the usual want
of elegance, and then call to mind the fact that at Newport, the
previous summer, you complimented her so many times on the peculiar
taste which her coiffure always displayed. The aforesaid drummer is now
giving the drum considerable ill usage, and then for the first time, you
observe that he has two of them which he appears to beat alternately.
The director is casting his head from one side to the other, flashes of
disapprobation dart from his eyes upon the dilatory violinists, who from
time to time, stop as it were, to catch breath, and fail to "come to the
scratch" in due season. Every now and then a frown, dark as Erebus,
spreads over his brow, as some poor laggard is astray in the mazes of
sound, and can't find his place, or turns two pages instead of one, and
consequently loses the thread of his harmonious discourse. The music
grows so powerful that the conversation of the most enthusiastic and
vociferous fast man no longer meets the ear. The orchestra is going as
if they were riding an instrumental steeple chase, and the director
looks more and more involved in doubt, as to which of his followers is
to be left most in the rear.

At length when you have concluded that every musician has exhausted his
last resource in the general attempt to make a noise, you are knocked
into a start of astonishment by the introduction of a corps de
reserve, in the clash of cymbals, which sounds as if a careless servant
had stumbled in coming up stairs and mashed an entire set of Sevres
china. In the midst of this carnage of crotchets and quavers, the
director is obviously the controlling spirit who "rides in the whirlwind
and directs the storm." There he sits producing no one sound except an
occasional rap of his baton on the desk, and yet rousing to frenzy or
lulling into tranquillity the instruments of all this tumult, every now
and then, as Mr. Macaulay would say, "hurling foul scorn" at the heaps
of little black dots that are crowded over the leaves of his score.

When the intensity of the tones has been diminished and augmented some
half dozen times, the overture is concluded in four grand crashes, in
which the cymbals make the most conspicuous figure. During the overture,
however, there seems to be occasional seasons when there is a cessation
of hostilities, and a soft plaintive air is taken up by one clarionet,
violincello or oboe, with which air the audience must be very much
delighted, for they laugh and talk with the greatest earnestness, and
never turn their eyes towards the orchestra.

And now there is a new commotion among the musicians, while arranging
every thing for the more serious undertaking, the opera itself. The
director goes about like a general on the eve of battle, reconnoitres
his forces, and marshals them for the attack. He mounts the elevated
seat, gives another contortion to his frame, similar to that which was
necessary to put the overture in movement, and then the curtain rises.
Heads are slightly projected from the boxes at this movement, and many
an alabaster neck is curved forward till the lowered drapery reveals the
snowy bosom. The noise of conversation ceases, and the opera commences
in earnest.

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