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Fall/Winter 2002

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UNL to Revive Influential "Bohemian Girl"

by Tom Hancock
Arts and Sciences

It's a work of popular entertainment that almost everyone knew around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and almost no one knows today. For more than 70 years, beginning in 1843, it was the most widely performed opera in English in the English-speaking world, at a time when opera was one of the most popular form of entertainment and more than 200 opera companies toured the United States.

The opera, The Bohemian Girl, composed by Michael William Balfe, also holds special significance for Nebraskans and readers of Willa Cather, who saw the opera as a teen-ager and whose work frequently makes use of its characters, plot, and, especially, its music. Other writers of the period have also drawn from the opera. James Joyce, for example, refers to it several times in his works.

Another indication of The Bohemian Girl's popularity was a 1936 movie musical by Laurel and Hardy that was a parody of the opera, since parody assumes familiarity on the part of the audience.

The only familiarity most classical music buffs would likely have with The Bohemian Girl, said UNL School of Music Artist- in-Residence Ariel Bybee, is through two songs from the opera that are occasionally performed in concert: "I Dreamt That I Dwelt In Marble Halls," and a tenor aria "You'll Remember Me."

English Professor James Ford and Bybee have taken on the task of reviving The Bohemian Girl. In 1999, the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Foundation decided to restore the Red Cloud Opera House, which closed in 1929. Bybee and Ford were invited to co-direct a production of The Bohemian Girl for its rededication in September 2002.


Image of a dancing bohemian girl

The plot revolves around gypsies, royalty, and star-crossed lovers. Arline, the six-year-old daughter of a Hungarian Count, is wounded in the arm by Thaddeus, a proscribed Polish nobleman, as he saves her from a wild stag. She is then kidnapped by the same band of gypsies Thaddeus has joined for safety.
Thaddeus and Arline fall in love, incurring the wrath of the jealous Gypsy Queen. Twelve years after the abduction, the gypsy band is back in the neighborhood of the count, and the Queen frames Arline for the theft of some jewelry. Arline is arraigned before the count, who recognizes her by the scar on her arm and restores
her to her former home.

Thaddeus secretly visits Arline in the palace one last time before leaving her forever, but is discovered by the count, who threatens to kill him. Arline declares her love for Thaddeus and pleads for his life. The count, learning of the Pole's noble status, relents'whereupon the Gypsy Queen tries to shoot Thaddeus, but is killed instead in a struggle over the gun. Arline leads the company in general rejoicing.

From an early age Cather was interested in music. She first saw The Bohemian Girl in 1888 at the Red Cloud Opera House. Cather uses music, including opera, in her writing as much as anyone, Ford said, and at least three of her works refer to the opera. One short story even bears the name of the opera and has a plot which parallels that of the opera.

The opera's influence on Cather's work makes the revival important to Cather scholars who know that there are references to The Bohemian Girl but who have never heard the music or seen the opera performed. "It's like in another work if a poet refers to a painting'to see the painting would be helpful," Ford said. Readers of Cather and Joyce's works thereby get a better appreciation of what was going on in the writers' minds when they refer to The Bohemian Girl.
The Bohemian Girl was the end product of a typical artistic evolution. The opera's title would more accurately be "The Gypsy," Ford said. Its earliest incarnation was as a short story by Cervantes called "La Guitana," or "The Gypsy Woman." From there the story went through incarnations as a ballet and a play before being used as the foundation for The Bohemian Girl.

The fact that still amazes Bybee is how The Bohemian Girl became extinct after enjoying such widespread popularity. "The opera was known by every grandma singing to her child at the turn of the century. . . . The more we learn about it the more we understand that this is a historically and culturally significant work of art," Bybee said. "Now that we have listened to it, we know that it is also a musically significant work of art." In 1971, Richard Bonynge conducted the only full recording of the opera in existence.

There are several reasons The Bohemian Girl fell out of favor, Bybee and Ford said.

The story is pretty silly, Bybee said, but many classic operas, such as Giuseppe Verdi's Il Travatore, also have silly plots, so that is not an explanation for the opera's decline in popularity.

Some elements of the opera are also dated, so any contemporary production is going to be anachronistic. Also, Ford said, the libretto is dated and stilted, and sometimes sounds like a bad translation even though the libretto was written in English. Bybee and Ford are doing some revising that should make the opera more enjoyable for a modern audience.

The Bohemian Girl can be thought of as Gioacchino Rossini meets Gilbert and Sullivan, Ford said. Rossini, the 19th century Italian composer of famed works such as The Barber of Seville, was Balfe's mentor.

Comparing The Bohemian Girl to the great operas is not a fair comparison, Bybee said. It should instead be compared to other light operas of the late 19th century, and in that crowd it does quite well, Bybee said.

Despite any musical shortcomings, the opera is still undeniably interesting both musically and historically. "I have simply mentioned to colleagues and musicians that we are doing The Bohemian Girl and there are two reactions: either they've never heard of it, or they are very excited," Bybee said. She gets the same reaction from English literature scholars.

Interest in the opera is not just regional. Washington Post music critic Philip Kennicott, in a letter to Ford, said, "I'm thrilled to hear that Balfe's opera will be performed to rededicate the Red Cloud Opera House. I can't think of a more appropriate theatrical environment in which to present this work, so little known yet so vital to American opera history. It seems that a national revival of the score is just about inevitable, and long overdue."

Bybee directs an opera each year at UNL and The Bohemian Girl will fill that role in 2002. The UNL production, April 4-7, 2002, will be the largest, with subsequent productions tailored to fit the smaller dimensions of the restored opera houses.

When opera house managers look into the houses' histories, they often discover that The Bohemian Girl was performed several times.

A tour of six restored opera houses in Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri has been arranged. One of these venues, the Brownville Theater in Missouri, is the 10th-oldest theater in the United States and has been in continuous use since 1851. The opera would be part of the Missouri River Festival of the Arts in August 2002.

Kennicott, along with several English and music history scholars, will participate in a symposium on opera and literature that will be held in conjunction with the performances of The Bohemian Girl at UNL. "Opera and Literature: Willa Cather and The Bohemian Girl" will be held April 6 in the Nebraska Union. The symposium is being coordinated with the Cather Project's WWI Symposium.

A conference on opera and literature will be held in conjunction with the production at UNL. In addition to Kennicott, those who have accepted invitations to attend include: Richard Giannone, of Temple University and author of "Music in Willa Cather's Fiction"; and David Breckbill, historian of opera styles from Doane College, who will present a paper on "What Cather Heard."

Another exciting indication of widespread interest in the opera is that UNL has received an invitation to enter its production of The Bohemian Girl in the amateur opera group competition at the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera in Waterford, Ireland. Both the Plains states tour and the Waterford trip will require outside funding, and the Friends of Opera, a new statewide organization formed to support opera at UNL, is working hard to find the funds.

In the meantime, Ford is conducting research into the opera. Cather identified the Andrews Opera Company as the group that presented the opera when she saw it at age 16 or 17 in Red Cloud. This was one of more than 200 opera companies that toured the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The industry quickly withered as a form of popular entertainment with the advent of the motion picture in the early 20th century. Many opera houses were then converted to movie theaters; now some are being converted back.

With a grant from the UNL Humanities Center in the College of Arts and Sciences, Ford has sifted through the Andrews company archives at the Minnesota State Historical Society. Ford has discovered through his research what compromises were made to accommodate the opera, an epic work in size, to the small stages of the opera houses. He will present his findings at the symposium in a paper entitled "What Cather Saw."

Light opera will never regain its place as a premiere American entertainment. But the return of The Bohemian Girl will provide a glimpse into what moved audiences at the turn of the century.