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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

Of The Opera In The Concrete

"Lord! said my mother, what is all this story about?

"A cock and a bull, said Yorick--and one of the best of its kind I
ever heard."--TRISTRAM SHANDY.

Prince Henry. "'Wilt thou rob this leather-jerkin,
crystal-button, nott-pated, agate-ring, puke stocking,
caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish-pouch,--"

Francis. "O Lord, sir, who do you mean?"

P. Hen. "Why then, your brown bastard is your only drink: for,
look you, Francis, your white canvas doublet will sully; in
Barbary, sir, it cannot come to so much." FIRST PART OF KING HENRY

"If this were played upon a stage, now, I would condemn it as an
improbable fiction." TWELFTH NIGHT.

When the curtain rises the scene represents a dark forest, where some
quite well dressed, but desperate, foreign-looking gentlemen are engaged
at a game of cards, which, from the abandoned appearance of the players,
we are warranted to believe, must be some such low pastime as "all
fours," or a hand at poker. The desperate gentlemen cantatorially
inform the audience that their profession is that of outlaws, and remark
that having no particular business then to engage them, they are staking
quite extravagant sums on some cards, which the curious observer will
discover to have a very unctuous appearance. How the outlaws ever came
to be reduced to such straightened circumstances as to put up with these
"lodgings upon the cold ground," or how they ever fell into such an
improper course of life, we are not told, but we remember once hearing a
fast man suggest that they were evidently "nobs who had overdrawn the
badger by driving fast cattle, and going it high"--the exact
signification of which words we did not understand, but supposed them to
refer to scions of nobility who had squandered their patrimonies in
riotous living. That these men are lost beyond the hope of redemption,
is clear from the fact that they express their determination to employ
themselves in no more useful or moral way; and how long they would
persist in this pernicious amusement is rendered uncertain, by the
entrance of their leader or chieftain--who, it is needless to say, is
the tenor. From, the first moment that the spectator casts his eye on
this obviously unfortunate individual, he is at once interested in his
case, observing to himself, that if the fellow is somewhat addicted to
low company, still he's a very gentlemanly character, and to all

"The mildest manner'd man
That ever sculled ship or cut a throat."

His looks are sad and melancholy, and would indicate that he is either
suffering from a cold in the head, or that his outlaws had been a little
more successful at "all fours" than himself. The "dejected haviour of
his visage" seems to touch the audience, for they immediately give him
several rounds of applause, no doubt with the intention of raising his
spirits. This kind manifestation of their feelings is responded to by
one or two low bows, and then he turns towards his outlaws to obtain a
becoming reception from them.

He is greeted by his followers with the greatest enthusiasm; though, to
their inquiries after his health, he makes no reply, but walks languidly
down to the foot-lights, and relates to both audience and outlaws, how
deplorable will be his condition unless he receive the assistance of
the latter in carrying out his designs. He goes on to state that the
"voice of a certain damsel of Arragon has slid into his heart like dew
upon a parched flower"--a simile which the reader will observe to be
equally felicitous as novel. He adds, however, that a great old villain
and tyrant (who of course must be the basso,) has carried off the
Spanish maiden, and is about to compel her to marry him. The bandits
become at once highly indignant, and with one accord seize their arms
and declare that they will follow their chief to the castle of the old
phylogynist, and boulverse all his designs by some insinuating digs of
the poignard. The despondent chief seems comforted by this assurance of
their "most distinguished consideration," and remarks that the young
lady will no doubt be a consoling angel amidst the griefs of exile.

While he has been informing the audience and his friends of the state of
his feelings, he has from time to time indulged in gestures about as
strong as we can well conceive of, but now and then when an
extraordinarily deep sentiment, and a very high note, choose the same
moment for their expression, he is obliged to poise himself on one
foot, extend the other behind him, elevating the heel and depressing the
toe, fold his hands over his breast, throw back the head and shake his
body like a newfoundland dog just issuing from the water--the refractory
note and the hidden emotion are always brought to light by these
gesticulatory expedients.

Immediately after this, the scene having changed to the castle of the
tyrant, the "Aragonese vergine" (the prima donna), is discovered
reclining on an old box covered with green baize, which long-continued
acquaintance with theatrical properties, enables the audience to
recognize as a velvet lounge. This lady seems to be in great
affliction, for which, however, we can discover no adequate cause,
except that she is in such an unbecoming place for an unprotected
female. The applause of the audience is overwhelming, and three very
low, but extremely graceful and lady-like curtsies which she rises "to
do," are the consequence.

The beaux are now in all the excitement that dandies dare permit
themselves to yield to, alternately exclaiming, "how grand she is! how
beautiful! heavens, but isn't she beautiful!" and then bringing down the
focus of the opera-glass on the peerless woman.

The distressed female now launches off into a recitative, in which she
expresses, in no measured terms, her utter aversion to the hateful old
tyrant, and then, falling on one knee, strikes into a cavatina, in which
she says she hopes her lover, who necessarily must be the outlaw chief,
(who again must necessarily be the tenor), will come immediately and run
off with her--a wish that is probably often entertained by young ladies
in reference to their particular lovers, but which is seldom avowed in
this public way.

During the cavatina, she has been doing some very high singing, and
making a great many of the newfoundland dog shakes, the lady part of the
audience sitting wrapt in admiration, with the eyes fastened on the
stage as intently as if they were witnessing a marriage ceremony, gently
murmuring their approbation in detached sentences, such as "sweet,
lovely, charming, exquisite;" while the fast men by the door, utter the
words "knocker, fast nag," and declare that her time is "two thirty."

One of these very sporting young gentlemen asserts his readiness to
"back her against the field." Just as the prima donna makes a very
steep raise in the scale with a dreadful velocity of utterance, the same
individual expresses his desire to withdraw the offer, observing that
she is making her "brushes" too soon, and that he fears "she'll be too
distressed to come home handsome."

A troupe of maidens with very plethoric ancles, now make their
appearance, encumbered by large gilt paste-board caskets, containing
some exceedingly brilliant paste-jewelry, intended as bridal presents
for the unprotected female. They have, however, the strangest mode of
offering these tokens of friendship that we have ever seen.

They arrange themselves in a line on one side of the stage, apparently
measuring their proximity to or distance from the foot-lights, with
reference to the relative thickness of their ankles, until the lady
nearest the audience seems to be the subject of a violent attack of
elephantiasis. This done, they repeatedly sing five bars, and stretch
out the right hand containing the present, in a line, forming, with the
body, an angle of about ninety degrees.

A certain king of Castile in disguise, who is another of the many
admirers of the heroine, breaks in on this little ceremony, expresses a
strong wish to see her, and is told by one of the maidens, that the
subject of his admirations is very much depressed in spirits, being
considerably smitten with the afore-mentioned outlaw chieftain. The king
is shocked at his adored one's want of taste in making a preference so
little flattering to himself, and endeavours to force her to escape with
him; but the young lady being highly indignant, draws a dagger, and
threatens "to go into him," if he don't cease taking such
liberties--thereby attracting considerable applause from some gentlemen
in a back box, who have a strong penchant for dog-fighting. The outlaw
happens to come in at the very nick of time, and after some quite
serious altercation between him and the disguised king, at the moment
when the "fancy" part of the audience are expecting a "set to," and
admiring the courage of the little tenor (the outlaw), which they
technically denominate the "game" of the "light weight," the heroine
rushes between them with a drawn sword, threatening to destroy herself
if they do not desist, and calling upon them to remember the honour of
her mansion--thereby, no doubt, alluding to the possibility of an
indictment for keeping a disorderly house.

The old tyrant, of whom we have heard a great deal, but have not as yet
seen, returns home late at night to his castle, and finding two unknown
gentlemen in his house without an invitation, conversing with his
shut-up lady, he charges them with the impropriety of their behaviour.
The strange gentlemen (the outlaw chief and the king in disguise), not
particularly relishing these observations, beg him not to be so violent
in his language. This seems only to incense the old fellow the more, who
has just suggested "coffee and pistols," when the aforesaid king's
followers entering, make the tyrant acquainted with the fact that he's
been blowing up a king. The parasitical old tyrant immediately
endeavours to excuse himself for the mistake he has made; says he hopes
his royal highness will not be offended, that he had not the pleasure of
his acquaintance, and all that sort of thing. The king rejoins that he
is perfectly excuseable; that no offence has been done--that the cause
of his own unlooked-for presence arises from the fact that he is out for
the emperorship--that he is about doing a little electioneering, and
that he just stopped in to learn the state of public feeling in his
district, and solicit his (the tyrant's) vote. The tyrant being a good
deal flattered by this appeal to his chief weak point--namely, his own
fancied knowledge of party politics--says that the king does him great
honour--"supreme honour"--and invites him to spend the night in the
castle; which kind invitation his majesty graciously accepts.

In the meantime, the outlaw, having observed how much more cordially the
tyrant is received than himself, has made his exit. The king's followers
all draw up in line and conclude the act by a song, the burden of which
is that their master's nomination is the only one "fit to be made."

The next act discovers the tyrant awaiting the arrival of the
unfortunate heroine, to whom he is going to be married in a few minutes.
All is jollity in the castle, till a gentleman clothed as a pilgrim,
interrupts the general hilarity; for when the bride enters, he throws
off the dreadful black cloak and reveals the outlaw chieftain. He
pitches himself into a variety of passionate attitudes, to the great
terror of a whole boarding school of young ladies, whom their teacher
has permitted to visit the opera to improve their style of singing. The
bride elect rushes up to him, and so they both step down to the
foot-lights. The outlaw gentleman passes his right hand round the waist
of the lady, and clasps in his left both of her's, elevating them to a
line with the breast. They remain stationary for a moment, whilst the
orchestra is playing the symphony, looking as fondly into each other's
eyes as a pair of dear little turtle doves, and smiling as sweetly as
every gentleman and lady have a right to smile under such pleasant
circumstances. There they begin to assure each other simultaneously of
the pleasure they would find in immediately dying, placed in the
attitude which they are at present enjoying so highly; by a rare and
curious accident, both repeating the same words, with the exception of
the respective substitution of the pronouns "I, you, my, your, he, she,"
as often as such substitutions become necessary--as if one should say,
for example,

I'll } bet { my } money on the bob-tail mare.
You'll} {your}

He'll } bet {his} money on the bob-tail mare.
She'll} {her}

The outlaw is, however, obliged to run and hide himself, because he
hears the king knocking to come in, and he fears that he'll be killed if
he is discovered. The king enters, and with a very "fee, fi, fo, fum"
air, asks for the body of the outlaw. The tyrant tells a most bare-faced
falsehood, swears the outlaw is not in his house, and so, the king,
after considerable use of the word wretch, traitor, menditore, &c.,
carries off the bride as a hostage, to the great chagrin of the tyrant.
As soon as the king has departed with his fair companion, the tyrant
runs to the outlaw's hiding place, and dragging him forth by the
collar, declares that he'll kill him himself. The outlaw, under great
excitement, seizes his head in both hands in a manner so terrible, that
self-decapitation would seem to be inevitable, which so alarms the
aforesaid boarding school misses, that two of them go off into
hysterics, and they are carried into the lobby, where the cutting of
their laces is attended with an explosion similar to that of "popping" a
champagne cork. The outlaw prays the tyrant not to kill him just now,
and says he will give him permission to do so at any future period.
"Here, sir," adds he, still addressing himself to the tyrant, "is a very
fine cornet a piston, allow me to present it to you with the
assurance, that whenever you wish to obtain my presence for the purpose
of exterminating me, you will merely be obliged to sound the note of B
flat, and I will unhesitatingly comply with your wishes." In the words
of the poet Tennyson,

"Leave me here, and when you want me,
Sound upon the bugle horn."

The tyrant accepts the present upon the accompanying condition, but
having no great confidence in the word of a man who has been associating
so long a time with bad company, he requires him to make oath to that
effect; which being done, both gentlemen call upon the chorus to follow
them immediately in pursuit of the king and his captive lady. These
cowardly rascals stand some five minutes and sing about their readiness
to depart, instead of marching off instantly, as they are requested to

In the third act, the king hides himself in a grave-yard during the
election for emperor, probably out of fear that he may be defeated.
While wandering among the grave-stones he overhears some of his
political enemies, (among whom is the outlaw chieftain,) plotting his
assassination. The conspirators cast lots for the office of assassin,
and the lot very naturally falls on the outlaw. The next moment the
report of cannon is heard, and the king's retinue come in, bringing with
them the heroine--who, we must confess, seems to have no real business
there,--and state that the polls have closed, and that the king has been
elected emperor. Thereupon the new emperor calls the conspirators up and
is about to have them killed, just as it might be expected an emperor
would do.

The heroine begs for the life of the miserable offenders, telling the
emperor that if he wishes to be considered a sovereign of
respectability, and not conduct himself like one who had "stolen a
precious diadem and put it in his pocket," he must pardon the
delinquents. The emperor relents, and pronounces a pardon for the
conspirators. He calls up the robber chieftain and the heroine, and
uniting their hands, expresses an ardent wish that they may, as the
libretto says, "love forever." The pleasure of the two lovers is
indescribable, and the whole company begin to sing the praises of such a
trump of an emperor. The air, which is chosen as the vehicle to carry
all this adulation to royal ears, is apparently one of those crashing,
clashing passages in the overture; and if the emperor does not hear the
voice of flattery, it is because the gentlemen who preside over the
kettle-drum and cymbals, seem to have entered into a conspiracy to
prevent it. The more zealous the chorus is in its efforts to make an
agreeable impression on their sovereign, and the louder the voice is
raised for this object, the more that irritable old drummer seems
anxious to defeat their sycophantic purposes. If you are one of those
excitable persons who are prone to take a side in every contest that
comes under their observation, whether it be two gentlemen ranging for
the presidency, or two bull-terriers "punishing" each other for the
possession of a bone, you immediately determine who you hope may carry
their point. In your admiration of the dogged perseverance of the old
drummer, you take part in favour of the instruments, and when you hear
that sudden and awful clash of the cymbals, which causes you to start
till you dig your elbow into an elderly gentleman on one side, and tread
on some corny toes on the other, you felicitate yourself upon the
victory of parchment and brass over throats; but the next moment your
pleasure is extinguished, for the tenor and soprano give their voices an
extra lift, and away they go up like rockets, far aloft above the din of
horns, cymbals and kettle drums.

The fourth and last act represents the terrace of a highly illuminated
palace, which may be seen in the back ground. Some masked gentlemen,
very bandy-legged and knock-kneed, dressed in tight hose, well
calculated to exhibit these deformities, are observed flirting with some
of the before mentioned thick-ankled ladies, who likewise rejoice in
dominos. Every thing indicates that this is a place, where people are in
the habit of being extremely jolly, and from which such stupid things as
parties to which a few friends are invited "very sociably", or family
re-unions, are entirely abolished. Presently all the company break out
with the expression of one general wish for the unbounded prosperity of
the outlaw chief and the heroine whom we saw betrothed in the last act,
and who have just been married. They make their exit shortly afterward
in great precipitation, having been frightened from the stage by the
appearance of a great, horrible-looking figure, clothed in black, which
seems to be a species of bug-bear, sent to scare such naughty people who
do nothing but dance, sing and make merry. The bug-bear exits shortly

Again the highly profligate chorus enter, in no wise corrected by the
visitation of the gloomy looking gentleman, and assure the audience what
a pleasant thing it is for one man to flirt with another's wife from
behind a mask, or for an innocent young lady "going her first winter" to
whisper in a corner with a man about town; but getting weary of this
occupation, they at last retire, and the newly married couple--the
outlaw and his bride--again show themselves.

The outlaw seems to be struck with a highly poetic vein, for he tells
the lady that the noise of the polka in the palace has ceased, that the
gas has been stopped off, and that the stars are amusing themselves by
smiling on their happy union, "because they've nothing else to do."
Thereupon they indulge in a gentle embrace, and start off simultaneously
in a duo, declaratory of the union of their two hearts in such an
anti-anatomical manner, that henceforth until their latest breath, one
cardiacal organ will suffice to perform the functions of two separate
bodies. Scarcely have they made this declaration of their abnormal
heart-union, before the sound of a horn falls on the ears of the o'er
happy couple. At this moment the outlaw forgets all good breeding, and
still influenced by his former brigand habits, swears a most horrible
oath in the presence of his young bride, and seems to be overcome by
great depression of spirits. The poor woman, observing nothing singular
about the blast of the horn--in all probability fancying that it is only
the tooting of a lazy post boy somewhat behind time, prays him to cheer
up, and let her see him smile. Before the outlaw can comply with this
small request the horn sounds again. "Behold," shrieks the young
husband, "the tiger seeks his prey." The bride surveys the apartment,
but observing no tiger or other ferocious animal, takes it for granted
that he has the mania a potu, induced by imbibing too much champagne at
the wedding feast. She immediately runs out into the bridal chamber,
with the intention of putting on those indefinite garments denominated
"things," and going to call up the court physician. The outlaw chieftain
stands a moment listening with breathless attention, and hearing no more
of the horn, comes to the conclusion that he has no just ground for
fear, and that it was only a dreadful ringing in the ears with which he
is sometimes afflicted. He thereupon rushes in pursuit of his bride, but
just as he arrives at the door of the bridal chamber, his progress is
arrested by the same black hob-goblin gentlemen who frighted the
dissipated chorus, as before related. This gentleman is recognized by
the outlaw in spite of his black clothes and mask, as the hateful old
tyrant who persecuted him to such an extent some time previously. The
outlaw groans a few times, and then the tyrant asks his victim if he
calls to mind his promise, and the words of the poet Tennyson,

"Leave me here, and when you want me
Sound upon the bugle horn."

The poor outlaw begs for his life; but the old tyrant remains
inexorable, and tells him that he must die.

The unhappy bride returns, and hearing her husband entreating the old
tyrant so fervently for a respite, unites her supplications with those
of her husband. To this the tyrant makes no direct answer, but merely
presents a poignard to the trembling outlaw, with a repetition of the
words of the poet Tennyson.

"Leave me here, and when you want me
Sound upon the bugle horn."

The outlaw perceiving no mode of escaping from this horn of the
dilemma, seizes the poignard, drives it in his breast, and sinks
mortally wounded. The poor bride shrieks, and falls upon his body. Now
succeeds a scene of pulling and dragging on the floor. The wounded
tenor is called upon to struggle and writhe in all the agonies of death,
and the prima donna to follow him up in order to raise his head on her
knee, and thus give him an opportunity of singing his dying solo. To do
this in such a manner as not to render the whole thing ridiculous and
farcical, instead of tragic and touching, requires all the grace and
ease imaginable. When well done it is impressive; when badly it is
laughable; but whether touching or laughable, it is sure to be relished
by a large part of the audience, for it always discloses who has done
most for the prima donna's bust, dame nature or the mantua maker.

The tenor's head being elevated to the proper height, he expresses it as
his dying wish that the prima donna will continue to live and cherish
his memory. They then lament their unhappy fate in a short duo. The
tenor dies; the prima donna appears to do the same, but the libretto
consoles you by declaring that she only swoons. The old tyrant--the
basso--chuckles like a wretch over the success of his successful plot,
declares it a revenge worthy of a demon; you concur in his sentiments,
and the curtain falls.

Gentle reader, are you wearied out with this insufferable nonsense? Do
not say that you are, or you will have established a reputation for want
of taste, beyond all controversy. Not to admire what we have written in
this chapter, is to condemn what we know you have often declared was a
"love of an opera." We have merely explained the plot of a well known
operatic chef d'oeuvre, which, goodness knows, required an

Now do not be petulant, and very satirically exclaim,--"I wish he
would explain his explanation," thereby showing, both that you can be
excessively severe, and that you have read Byron. We do not intend to
endeavour to render luminous that which is so very clear and evident in
its meaning; it would be to "gild refined gold," and all that sort of
thing, and therefore we spare you the infliction.

Next: Apres

Previous: Before The Curtain

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