Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs003.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 3

"The White Mulberry Tree" As Opera

In her preface to the 1925 edition of Gertrude Hall's Wagnerian Romances, Richard Wagner's opera librettos recast in story form, Willa Cather wrote, "If you wish to know how difficult it is to transfer the feeling of an operatic scene upon a piece of narrative, try it! I had to attempt it once in the course of a novel, and I paid Miss Hall the highest compliment one writer can pay another; I stole from her" (ix). Two questions arise: in the course of which novel did Cather attempt operatic effect, and what did she steal from Hall? Scholars have dealt with the first question in passing, linking Cather's remarks to The Song of the Lark, a book steeped in Wagnerian opera.[1] Cather, however, did not refer to any of her own works by title in her preface to Hall's book. Moreover, no one has examined where and how Cather attempted operatic effect in The Song of the Lark.

There is substantial evidence that Cather's experiment in the transference of operatic feeling to narrative occurred not in The Song of the Lark but in "The White Mulberry Tree," a story that she incorporated into O Pioneers! The incubation and writing period of "The White Mulberry Tree" corresponds to a time in Cather's life when she was especially amenable to the influences of opera, and the story's theme of unbridled passion, as well as its style of presentation, suggests opera as a model. An operalike story, rather than a story about opera, seems the most suitable place to attempt the creation of operatic feeling on the printed page. And when "The White Mulberry Tree" is read alongside Hall's Wagnerian Romances, Cather's specific debt to Hall becomes apparent. Cather almost certainly drew upon Hall's retelling of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde for the "feeling" of "The White Mulberry Tree."

O Pioneers! was written during a time when Cather was experiencing opera, and Wagnerian opera in particular, at a new level of intensity. Cather's nearly lifelong affinity for opera is well documented, fleshed out by her youthful opera reviews in Lincoln and Pittsburgh publications. Following her move from Pittsburgh to New York in 1906, she was in a position to indulge her fondness to the fullest. In New York she routinely heard productions performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. The Metropolitan, popularly regarded as the site of the best productions America had to offer, commanded a roster of singers and conductors such that even today, across the years, the names thrill: Caruso, Chaliapin, Farrar, Mahler, Toscanini-and Olive Fremstad.

Recognizing Fremstad's influence upon "The White Mulberry Tree" is to recognize her importance to Cather during the incubation period of O Pioneers!, an importance obscured by the critical convention identifying Fremstad with Thea Kronborg (for whom she served as a prototype) in The Song of the Lark (1915). A chronology of singer and writer suggests how resonant and longstanding was Fremstad's appeal for Cather. Fremstad's name first appeared on the Metropolitan's permanent roster of artists in the 1903-4 season, and Cather first heard her sing soon after moving to New York in 1906 (Lewis 90); and Fremstad's name remained on the roster until 1913-14, the season during which Cather interviewed her. Most pertinent to this discussion, Fremstad first sang Isolde on 1 January 1908, an important operatic event since it also marked Gustav Mahler's debut as conductor. Fremstad sang the role seventeen times between her debut and the 1911-12 season, the period in which Cather wrote "The White Mulberry Tree" (Seltsam 175-240). During these years she sang the role twice as many times as all other Wagnerian sopranos combined. Fremstad was intimately identified with the role of Isolde.

Cather, an ardent operagoer, surely heard Fremstad sing Isolde more than once. When she wrote to her sister Elsie about attending a Christmas Eve performance of Tristan and Isolde in 1913, she described the powerfully evocative effect of the opera when it was well done and added that this performance was a great one for Fremstad (Cather, Letter to Elsie Cather). In her 1913 McClure's article, "Three American Singers," Cather identified a particular quality that Fremstad brought to her performances: an ability to express "the old paths of human yearning" (46). Tristan and Isolde is very much about yearning, and with Fremstad's Isolde reverberating in her ear and Hall's Isolde coming to life on the pages of The Wagnerian Romances, Cather might well have discovered the touchstone for the kind of feeling she wanted to create when she began her own tale of yearning in "The White Mulberry Tree." For there is indeed evidence that Cather read Hall's version of Tristan and Isolde at a decisive time in her conception of Marie and Emil's tragic story.

In her preface to The Wagnerian Romances, Cather wrote, "I first came upon this book when I was staying in a thinly peopled part of the Southwest, far enough from the Metropolitan Opera House" (viii). In March 1912 Cather left New York for what James Woodress calls "her pivotal journey to the Southwest" (226). Her itinerary took her first to Pittsburgh, where she revised the short story "The Bohemian Girl," then to Red Cloud, where she revisited Bohemian country, and then on to Winslow, Arizona, where she visited her brother Douglass. Cather returned to Red Cloud, where, watching the harvest on the edge of a wheat field, she conceived the idea, she said, for "The White Mulberry Tree" (Sergeant 84). She returned to Pittsburgh and wrote the story, then had that famous moment of inspiration when she paired her newly written story with another recently completed shorter work, "Alexandra," and O Pioneers! began to take shape as a novel.

In her preface to Hall's book, Cather said that she had first encountered The Wagnerian Romances "in the blue air of New Mexico" (x). Woodress reports that Cather spent about ten days in New Mexico during her 1912 visit to the Southwest (11), and since Hall's book was first published in 1907, Cather could have discovered it during this visit. If so, a conception of "The White Mulberry Tree" as opera might have transpired as follows: Cather completed one story of illicit love set in the Bohemian country of her childhood, "The Bohemian Girl," revisited that country, then went to the Southwest, where she read Hall's operatically evocative book; she returned to Nebraska, where, on the edge of a wheat field, all these experiences converged in her mind; she readdressed "The Bohemian Girl"'s theme of illicit passion, this time from the enriched perspective of Wagnerian opera.

"The White Mulberry Tree" is one of the few works by Cather that lend themselves to operatic treatment. Opera is the kingdom of star-crossed love, tormented passion: La Traviata, La Bohème, Carmen, Lucia di Lamermoor, Romeo and Juliet, Otello-the list only begins. Contrast Marie and Emil with Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark, and the particular affinity of "The White Mulberry Tree" for treatment as opera, its appropriateness as a vehicle for the transference of "the feeling of an operatic scene upon a piece of narrative," emerges: Thea brings great passion to her art, but her alliance with Fred Ottenburg is comparatively prosaic, neither star-crossed nor tormented. Or contrast "The White Mulberry Tree" with Cather's later tale of destructive romance, Lucy Gayheart: Lucy yearns, it is true, but the passion in the story never ignites. Marie and Emil, however, love passionately, and Cather explores that passion as directly as she ever would in a novel.

If "The White Mulberry Tree" was conceived in part as opera, features of opera, or features reminiscent of opera, should appear in the text. They do. As a kind of foundation for operatic treatment, this story, which is not about music, is replete with music-as subject, background, and allusion. In the opening scene, Alexandra asks Emil to bring his guitar to the church fair. Then Marie, anxious to see Emil after his return from Mexico, first hears him "talking and strumming his guitar while Raoul Marsh sang falsetto" (216). The church fair closes with Emil and Raoul singing "Across the Rio Grand-e," and with Cather's foreshadowing observation that the very young cannot feel that the heart lives "unless its strings scream to the touch of pain" (226). Later, in the confirmation scene, following references to Rossini and Gounod, the choir sings. After the confirmation Mass there is more singing, a private performance for the bishop. Emil begins his final, fatal journey to Marie against the background of Raoul's rendition of "The Holy City." Even in a workaday section, when Alexandra visits with Emil over her sewing, music surfaces as subject. The two talk about their father's singing in a chorus in Stockholm. Richard Giannone, summarizing the whole of O Pioneers!'s musical definition of Marie and Emil, says that "music seems a natural metaphor to convey the significance of their lives, because everything about Emil and Marie is characterized by rhythm, vivacity, and grace" (Giannone 76).

When their story comes to the forefront of O Pioneers! in "The White Mulberry Tree," the musical metaphor particularizes to an operatic metaphor. This metaphor results from the combination of musical repletion with certain highly stylized features of presentation, the high style of opera. For example, the opening of "The White Mulberry Tree" is unequivocally staged: The French Church, properly the Church of Sainte-Agnes, stood upon a hill. The high, narrow, red-brick building, with its tall steeple and steep roof, could be seen for miles across the wheatfields, though the little town of Sainte-Agnes was completely hidden away at the foot of a hill. The church looked powerful and triumphant there on its eminence, so high above the rest of the landscape, with miles of warm color lying at its feet, and by its position and setting it reminded one of some of the churches built long ago in the wheat-lands of middle France. (211)

Compare this with the opening of O Pioneers! itself: "One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away" (3). Or compare it with the openings of the other sections of O Pioneers! or with those of The Song of the Lark. "The White Mulberry Tree," provides a veritable blueprint for a set designer: what to paint, what to construct. The set evokes opera not only in its opera-stage familiarity-one thinks of the church on the square in Cavalleria Rusticana, an old Cather favorite-but also in the massive scale of its symbolism. The story of unholy passion begins against a backdrop that does not hint at holiness but rather proclaims it in unmistakable terms. The lack of subtlety is operatic, reflecting what Herbert Lindenberger calls opera's "penchant for exaggeration and its overt artifice" (15).

The fact that the church "looked powerful and triumphant there on its eminence" and "reminded one of some of the churches built long ago in the wheat-lands of middle France" reflects opera in its deliberate distancing of setting. Such distancing marks most opera, even opera's version of realism, the verismo school, which flourished in the late nineteenth century. An out-of-the-ordinary setting goes hand in hand with the emotional intensity of opera, making the on-stage events at once more exalted and more bearable. Marie and Emil's last scene together, just as their first, plays out in a highly stylized setting. The white mulberry tree of the title, alluding of course to Ovid, bears its fruit in a neglected orchard represented as "riddled and shot with gold" (258). Again Cather sketches a stage set, this time a dream orchard, and it too is a dramatically symbolic place. The lighting, so crucial to the story-as it is to Tristan and Isolde-is described with the precision of stage-lighting directions: "Long fingers of light reached through the apple branches as through a net . . . the trees were merely interferences that reflected and refracted light" (258). "The White Mulberry Tree" is not only staged, it is stage-lit.

Costumes, another mark of the high style of opera, define the opening scene of "The White Mulberry Tree." Cather describes Emil's costume before she says it is a costume, creating momentarily a colorful world far from the wheat fields: "Beside Alexandra lounged a strikingly exotic figure in a tall Mexican hat, a silk sash, and a black velvet jacket sewn with silver buttons" (212). And Marie, during her first love scene with Emil, wears "a short red skirt of stoutly woven cloth, a white bodice and kirtle, a yellow silk turban wound low over her brown curls, and long coral pendants in her ears" (216). Costumes, like stylized sets, contribute to the distancing quality of opera, and costumes are even more exclusively within the province of opera alone. In Lindenberger's words, "An opera without costume would, in contrast to a play, seem paradoxical" (Lindenberger 53).

Setting and costume, both alluding to times and places at a distance from the Nebraska farm country, shift this tale of doomed passion to an uncommon plane right from the start. The echoes of operatic structure, as well as of style, enter in. Most prominent among these, most thoroughly reminiscent of opera, is a feature typically unremarked in discussion of "The White Mulberry Tree": its crowd scenes. The opening church fair contrasts with the later confirmation scene in the clear-cut manner of opera. Each establishes a distinct mood, the underlying ominousness in the first scene surfacing in the second, and each provides a kind of chorus as background for the main characters. Opera, as opposed to drama, thrives on such crowd scenes, in part because in spoken drama the crowds "cannot be heard as a group and thus have no natural language to speak" (Lindenberger 35). In both scenes here, in different but conventionally operatic ways, the crowds are "heard as a group."

In the first scene, the church fair, there is a unity-in-diversity effect, perhaps best capsulized in a sentence describing the young men as they welcome Emil back into their midst: "They ran down the hill in a drove, all laughing and chattering at once, some in French, some in English" (215). It is a busy, many-voiced background. Like an opera chorus with separate vocal lines brought together in harmony, Cather's background is a harmonious one, a single, lively entity blurred into unity by Cather's strategically limited references to it. She keeps it as background, and against it the individual voices of Marie and Emil, once they finally talk to each other, stand out as surely as if they were singing a duet.

The second crowd scene, the confirmation, reflects opera in its ceremoniousness, in the overt unity, almost synchronization, of the group's action. When the cavalcade meets the bishop to escort him to the church, "like one man the boys swung off their hats in a broad salute, and bowed their heads as the handsome old man lifted his two fingers in the episcopal blessing" (253). As the cavalcade passes Pierre Seguin digging Amedee's grave, "the boys with one accord looked away from old Pierre to the red church on the hill, with the gold cross flaming on its steeple" (253). In opera, and in "The White Mulberry Tree," a ceremonial crowd scene such as this serves as a "magnifying force" lending an "epic quality" to the story (Lindenberger 36). Significantly, the crowd scenes progress from the first, informal and many-voiced, to the second, ceremonious and synchronized, marking a gathering in of elements, a concentration of action and emotion toward an inevitable end.

Perhaps more readily than other art forms, opera achieves the illusion of inevitability because of its musical development. In most opera, in fact, it is the music that delivers the emotional content of the story. Cather thought Wagner's operas different: "It happens that in the Wagnerian music-drama the literary part of the work is not trivial, as it is so often in operas, but is truly the material of music, done by the same hand" (Preface viii). For her story of capitulation to an illicit romantic passion that ultimately consumed life, Cather had access to tailor-made "material of music."

"The White Mulberry Tree," echoes Wagner's Tristan and Isolde in fundamental ways. By asserting the parallel, however, I am not eliminating the possible influence of other operas on the story, nor am I minimizing the influence of nonoperatic sources. Bernice Slote remarked that from very early in her career Cather handled "a kaleidoscope of reference," creating "glittering and allusive texture" in her work (92). In the medium of opera alone, there are possible layers of reference. Giannone, for example, discusses Marie and Emil persuasively in terms of Gounod's Faust, noting Emil's whistling of the "Jewel Song" early in O Pioneers! and remarking on parallel themes of destructive love (78-79). "The White Mulberry Tree" might also be interpreted as a reflection of a broadly defined verismo school, Carmen perhaps, in light of Emil's Mexican costume and his newly acquired Spanish. Carmen concludes with an on-stage murder precipitated by jealousy, an action paralleled by Frank Shabata's murder of Marie and Emil. Furthermore, verismo-like, in the first two thirds of O Pioneers! Marie and Emil are ordinary people, almost in contrast to Alexandra. In her white and gold majesty, Alexandra seems more nearly akin to a legendary character of a Wagnerian opera. Larger than life, she pits herself against the inexorable land and prevails.

Once "The White Mulberry Tree" begins, however, once the story of Emil and Marie moves forward, the influence of the Wagner opera dominates. Emil and Marie defy convention, give in to illicit love, attempt to satisfy their terrible yearning at "the high peaks of pure passion," in Gertrude Hall's phrase, "where Tristan and Isolde perpetually reside" (289). If Cather's concern was the transference of "the feeling of an operatic scene upon a piece of narrative," then Tristan and Isolde is the clearest analogue for the essential "feeling" of "The White Mulberry Tree." No other opera expresses yearning so intensely.

Wagner's opera and Cather's story are alike in certain significant ways. To summarize a four-hour opera in a few lines, Tristan and Isolde unfolds as follows: In the Cornwall of King Arthur's time, Tristan slays Isolde's betrothed in battle and is himself wounded. He is nursed by Isolde, and each conceives a silent passion for the other. But both believing their love unrequited and knowing that it conflicts with their obligations, they share what they think is a death draught. It is instead a love potion, which intensifies their passion. When they are discovered together, Tristan is wounded again and is carried to Kareol, his birthplace. Isolde follows, arriving at the bedside of the feverish Tristan, in a neglected castle garden, just in time for him to die in her arms. She dies not long thereafter.[2]

Even this sketch of the opera reveals a pattern replicated in "The White Mulberry Tree." For Tristan and Isolde, duty and passion conflict and there is no real choice. When they surrender to passion, they surrender to death. Moreover, the opera plays out as an intricate, almost paradoxical drama of light and dark, and this pattern repeats in "The White Mulberry Tree." Tristan and Isolde are lovers of the night, haters of the day because daylight keeps them apart. Fittingly, Isolde signals Tristan that an assignation is possible not by the lighting of a torch but by its extinguishment. Later, when the dying Tristan hears Isolde's voice, he, in Hall's memorable phrasing, "stops short and listens, shocked out of the idea of what he was trying to do, loosing his grasp on the present. 'What? . . . Do I hear the light?'" (307). And as the light of the living world dies, he answers this last signal, this final extinguishment of the torch, as he leaves the living Isolde to meet her in death.

Emil and Marie's love also belongs to the dark: their first kiss during the lights-out game at the church fair, their first declaration of love made under the cover of night. "No, nobody can see us," says Emil. "Everybody's asleep. That was only a firefly" (232). Fireflies, flecks of light in the dark, are persistent images in the orchard scene in which Marie acknowledges her love for Emil even as she renounces him. Increasingly thereafter, light attracts both Marie and Emil, and relentlessly, paradoxically, in the manner of Tristan and Isolde, it illuminates their path toward ultimate darkness. Thus Marie wanders the fields alone, envisioning a life of unconsummated love: "Marie walked on, her face lifted toward the remote, inaccessible evening star" (248). Later, as Emil steals softly through the neglected orchard to die with Marie, "light was the reality" (258). Emil's last earthly vision is primordial light: "The blood came back to her [Marie's] cheeks, her amber eyes opened slowly, and in them Emil saw his own face and the orchard and the sun" (259).

It is time to specify Cather's debt to Gertrude Hall. The play of light and dark, after all, belongs to Wagner's opera, as does the theme of yearning, the evocation of "the high peaks of pure passion." If Cather had intended to recreate the feeling of Tristan and Isolde in narrative, she might have gone directly to a to a libretto. Instead, her story follows Hall's retelling. Why? A reading of Hal reveals not a word-for-word translation of Wagner's libretto but a kind of expanded retelling, faithful but with explanation and commentary. Hall translates Wagner on day and night, love and death, then does what the words of opera cannot do adequately if unaided by music: she reveals undercurrents, deep and powerful emotional pulls. In talking of Tristan and Isolde, for instance, she makes explicit early on the deep attraction of night. "To love the night, to yearn for it, to wish it forever prolonged, is natural in these lovers who have drank of the cup; and, by a natural step further, since earthly life affords no such night, to wish for the night of death" (289).

By expanding and explaining Wagner, Hall retrieves much of the emotional content beneath the words of the libretto. And key to purposes here, she translates the libretto itself differently from others. In her preface to The Wagnerian Romances, Cather outlined her preference for Hall's approach: What a frightful jargon Tristan and Isolde speak to each other in the "authorized libretto," what insulting expletives Siegfried and Brunnhilde shout at each other on the rock! Miss Hall, in her introduction, says she respects the libretto-makers for having managed to fit their verse-rendering to the extremely difficult music in any way whatsoever. But in her rendering of the text the right word does not have to come in for the right beat. She is free to make a noble passage of German into noble English. (viii-ix)[3]

Hall, in other words, forges in prose a synthesis between the details of Wagner's sometimes labored poetry and the depth of meaning in his elaborate musical fabric.

To appreciate what Hall is able to achieve in a prose rendition, consider three versions of a short segment from Tristan and Isolde. The first version is from a libretto, a translation produced for singing; the second is from a 1913 translation self-described as a "poetic narrative form"; the third is Hall's. In this scene a feverish Tristan waits for Isolde, and in the first two versions the words are Tristan's. The translation for singing is as follows: O sunlight glowing, glorious ray! Ah, joy-bestowing radiant day! Boundeth my blood, boisterous flood! Infinite gladness! Rapturous madness! Can I bear to lie couched here in quiet? (Wagner 343)

The "poetic narrative" version reads: O glorious sunlight! And O wondrous day-light! O joy-bestowing, radiant, blessed day! How swift my blood, how shouts my heart for joy! Bliss without measure, rapture without reason! How can I bear it on this quiet couch? (Huckel 65)

And Hall's version: Tristan, left alone, falls to tossing and writhing with impatience. His burning fever is confused to his sense with the heat of the sun, and this day of joy he calls the sunniest of all days. This tumult of blood, this jubilant urge to action, this immeasurable delight, this frenzy of joy, how, how, to endure them prostrate upon the couch? (307)

Hall's language is obviously every bit as full-blown as that of the libretto or the "poetic narrative," and even she cannot deal gracefully with the descent from sublime to supine, as Tristan regrets his confinement to the couch. Hers is a faithful translation. What sets it apart is a technique also employed in "'The White Mulberry Tree." Hall does not rely exclusively on the words of Tristan to express Tristan. Rather, she transfers much of what Tristan says in the libretto to his mind, all the while employing the unstoppered rush of language, the fervid words characteristic of operatic librettos. The extravagant emotionalism is more acceptable because it is not bound, syllable by syllable, to dialogue but is instead conveyed through a kind of stepped-up stream of consciousness, a representation of the mind on fire. In this way Hall at her best suggests the emotional intensity of opera with considerable effect.

Cather gets into the minds, almost the souls, of Marie and Emil in the same way. As Emil he rides toward his last meeting with Marie, "the breath of wheat and the sweet clover passed him like pleasant things in a dream. He could feel nothing but the sense of diminishing distance. It seemed to him that his mare was flying, or running on wheels, like a railway train. The sunlight, flashing on the window glass of the big red barns, drove him wild with joy. He was like an arrow shot from the bow. His life poured itself out along the road before him as he rode to the Shabata farm" (258). Emil in rapture is an Emil outside the bounds of reason, very similar to a Tristan in delirium yearning for his final moment with Isolde, and Cather saturates her description with echoes of Tristan's delirium, images of speed, light, exaltation.

The essential feeling of both "The White Mulberry Tree" and Tristan and Isolde is not rapture, however, but yearning. Hall terms the yearning tragic "because it is a thirst which from the nature of things admits of no satisfaction upon the earth we know" (265). Cather, like Hall, and in strikingly similar passages, explores that thirst-how it feels, what it means. To do so, both employ the altered time of opera, in which emotions are thoroughly explored, demanding equal or greater time than narrative action. In both pairs of lovers, one of the pair envisions the possibility of a lifetime of unrequited yearning. Says a wandering Tristan, "The ancient air, which has asked me before this, and asks me again in this hour, to what possible end, what destiny I was born into the world? . . . To what destiny? The ancient song tells me over again: To spend myself in longing and to die!" (Hall 303, ellipses added). Marie, in her wandering, has a similar reflection: "The years seem to stretch before her like the land; spring, summer, winter, autumn, spring; always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain-until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman who might cautiously be released" (O Pioneers! 248). Inevitably, the alternative to a lifetime of longing is death. The intricate interplay of dark and light portends death in both opera and story, as splendor becomes the only reality and the doomed lovers themselves become aware that earthly paradise will elude them. Thus, Tristan and Isolde offer their invocation to night, "Oh!, close around us night of love! Give us forgetfulness of life! Gather us up in your arms, release us from the world!" (Hall 292). And Emil rushing to Marie invokes death: "As he rode past the graveyard he looked at the brown hole in the earth where Amedee was to lie and felt no horror. That, too was beautiful, that simple doorway into forgetfulness. The heart when it is too much alive aches for the brown earth, and ecstasy has no fear of death" (O Pioneers! 257).

Isolde's thoughts in her dying moment seem an extension of Emil's final enlightenment as he plunges toward the light: "to sink under, to drown, to be lost . . . that will be the supreme ecstasy!" (Hall 311, ellipses added). Isolde's is a love death, a liebestod, and in the minds of some, a transfiguration. The only clue about Marie's last thoughts comes as Ivar views the scene of death. Like Isolde, Marie outlives her lover and suffers alone, as her trail of blood on the grass shows. And like Isolde, Marie welcomes death at the end, as "her look of ineffable content" gives witness (O Pioneers! 269). Hers too is a kind of love death.

Wagner's long opera leaves the responsive listener drained, enwrapped in sorrow and regret. If Cather's goal was the transference of "the feeling of an operatic scene upon a page of narrative," and if, as asserted here, "The White Mulberry Tree" was where she tried it, did she, with Hall's help, create a Tristan and Isolde-like feeling?

For many readers, yes. A review in The Nation on 4 September 1913 speculated about the "ruthlessness" of the story but said, "To us the treatment of the episode seems justified by the mood of tragic emotion which underlies it" (210). It was, in other words, the "mood," the feeling that came across. And in 1987 Woodress categorized O Pioneers! among "that small group of works truly able to engage a reader's emotions," noting that the "tragedy in the orchard hits the reader hard" (248). Again, the subject is feeling-yearning, tragic.

After O Pioneers! Cather continued to treat tragic love, or at least the tragic aspect of love. One thinks of Marian Forrester in A Lost Lady or Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy. Never again, however, did Cather present young love at such a high tide of passion. Never again do we hear quite the same language, quite the same voice, as we hear in "The White Mulberry Tree." Emil is driven wild with joy, and Marie harbors a treasure of pain in her breast-furnished language indeed from the theorist of the unfurnished novel. If the later Cather was more selective, altogether subtler in her creation of mood, she also created subtler moods. For Marie and Emil under the mulberry tree, echoes of opera-that "extravagant art"-carry their tale down the old paths of human yearning straight to the heart.


I would like to thank David Breckbill for his comments on this article.

 1. Richard Giannone notes in his discussion of The Song of the Lark that "other influences enter into the book, like the discovery of the Southwest, which takes on the force of a permanent preoccupation, or the attempt 'to reproduce the emotional effect of the Wagner operas upon the printed page,' which Cather admits to trying" (Giannone 85). James Woodress reinforces the connection between The Song of the Lark and Cather's remarks by saying, "She added that when she wrote The Song of the Lark she had to do this [transfer the feeling of opera to narrative]: 'I paid Miss Hall the highest compliment one writer can pay another; I stole from her'" (Woodress 358). (Go back.)
 2. Kobbe (216-18) is my source for the opera summary. (Go back.)
 3. David Breckbill points out, however, that Gertrude Hall's retelling of Wagner's libretto follows a sentimental tradition no longer representative of approaches to Wagner. (Go back.)


Cather, Willa. Letter to Elsie Cather, 30 December 1913. Privately owned.
——. A Lost Lady. New York: Knopf, 1923.
——. Lucy Gayheart. New York: Knopf, 1935.
——. My Mortal Enemy. New York: Knopf, 1926.
——. O Pioneers! Boston: Houghton, 1913.
——. Preface to The Wagnerian Romances. Hall vii-x.
——. Review of Cavalleria Rusticana, by Mascagni. Curtin 2:657.
——. The Song of the Lark. Boston: Houghton, 1915.
——. Three American Singers." McClure's, December 1913, 33-48.
Curtin, William M., ed. The World and the Parish. 2. vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
Giannone, Richard. Music in Willa Cather's Fiction. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.
Hall, Gertrude. "Tristan and Isolde." The Wagnerian Romances. New York: Knopf, 1925. 265-313.
Huckel, Oliver. Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: A Dramatic Poem by Richard Wagner Freely Translated in Poetic Narrative Form by Oliver Huckel. New York: Crowell, 1913.
Kobbe, Gustav. "Tristan and Isolde." The New Kobbe's Complete Opera Book. Ed. the Earl of Harewood. New York: Putnam's, 1969. 216-32.
Krehbiel, Henry. Review of Tristan and Isolde, by Wagner, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1 January 1908. Reprinted in Seltsam 184.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. 1953 Athens: Ohio UP, 1989.
Lindenberger, Herbert. Opera: The Extravagant Art. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.
Seltsam, William H., comp. Metropolitan Opera Annals. New York: Wilson, 1947.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1953.
Slote, Bernice. "The Kingdom of Art." The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. 31-112.
Wagner, Richard. Tristan and Isolde: The Authentic Librettos of the Wagner Operas. New York: Crown, 1938. 309-47.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather. A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.