Oxford University Press, £22.99
When a donkey tripped over an oil-filled footlight during a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Florence Opera House in Kansas in 1884, the resulting fire was extinguished in time for the play to continue. Other opera houses were not so fortunate and fell victim to natural disasters or human neglect.
This is just one anecdote in Ann Satterthwaite’s scholarly assemblage of facts, figures and stories included in this fascinating if occasionally frustrating book about opera houses in America. A city planner in Washington DC, the author’s credentials are impeccable. It offers much to intrigue and enlighten about America’s post-bellum cultural heritage; it is perhaps best enjoyed as a reference book.
The central thread is America’s civic pride in its opera houses. Before the arrival of the movie theatre they were focal points for the community. While operas were performed in these establishments, they were also used for council meetings, recitals, dances, magic shows, circuses and lectures.
Satterthwaite reveals a rich heritage that was almost extinct by the mid 20th century until revived by preservationists such as herself, who realised these buildings were a symbol of America’s cultural egalitarianism—an ideal often overlooked by Europeans.
Citizens of even small towns in Iowa, Nebraska or Colorado flocked to see Shakespeare plays, Verdi operas or the Howard Family’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin which, like a Möbius strip, seemed to tour without end.
Championed by local celebrities—often women—such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Willa Cather (whose Nebraskan home town boasted the Red Cloud Opera House), they were an integral component of the social and cultural expansion occurring in the late-19th- and early-20th-century America.