When one deals with “old” material, especially, when by all review accounts, material not well received by the press in 1911, it is a viable question to ask – why would you take the time and effort to restore the performance materials? Obviously the press knew what was good and what was not – a relatively typical argument! However, when one looks at the extenuating circumstances surrounding the premiere of this work, there appear very intriguing conditions that cause a new hearing without alteration to beg consideration.
The creation of this first American grand opera was one of the most highly anticipated, highly political announcements of the American entertainment world of 1907 – not just in New York City, but across the country wherever an opera house stood. Hardly a day went by for two years without a story in newspapers anticipating this work. Every small to medium to large city in America had an opera house with a populace of immigrants from England, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia and Italy. These immigrants knew opera, were raised on opera, and who sang opera around the parlor piano! They also knew exactly who Victor Herbert was – one of the most famous composers in America – a true early household name.
When Oscar Hammerstein I announced that he had chosen Victor Herbert to write America’s first grand opera it was as if it had been Hal Prince announcing he had commissioned Steven Sondheim to do the same thing today – only much bigger since no American had ever composed a true grand opera. There had been some relatively minor attempts, but certainly none involving names equal to Hammerstein and Herbert. Ever since the 1890s, there are had been a growing cry for purely American music. As the American entertainment world was growing, there were beginning discussions of why was so much written by Europeans? Where was the authentic American voice?
With Oscar Hammerstein I’s announcement, the excitement began immediately and kept growing until it was suddenly aborted in March of 1910 with the sudden shocking demise of Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company in settlement and end of what had been a heated, nasty three year “Opera War” with the Metropolitan Opera Company. In truth, the Metropolitan’s first ever production of American composer Frederick Shepherd Converse’s Pipe of Desire (a one act) in 1910 was undeniably a reaction to all the press, hoopla and expectation of Herbert’s Natoma, to be produced by Hammerstein.
A bit of a lull occurred for a few months until an announcement came from Chicago that the remnants of the Manhattan Opera Company which had declined to join the Metropolitan Company and resurfaced as The Chicago Grand Opera would produce Natoma in Philadelphia under the name of the Philadelphia-Chicago Grand Opera Company. The company still retained sopranos Mary Garden as Natoma, Lillian Grenville as Barbara, and tenor John McCormack as American Lt. Paul Merrill. Almost immediately expectations once again began to soar as details of the story leaked out. An American Indian heroine – set in California – America would finally have its very own grand opera. There was even a wonderful battle royal in the newspapers over whether opera should ever be sung in English with the star Mary Garden taking the Con side and Christie MacDonald, who would eventually star in 1913 in Sweethearts, taking the Pro side. In addition, there was a press lurking in both Philadelphia and New York which was totally loyal to the Metropolitan Opera Company and weren’t about to praise anything commissioned by the upstart Hammerstein.
Natoma’s plot gave its audiences no elegant, rich nobility characters and settings – just picturesque, rough California of 1820, still owned by Spain. Action is split between the island of Santa Cruz where Don Francisco de la Guerra and his daughter Barbara reside, and the town of Santa Barbara on the mainland. Natoma, one of the few surviving members and Chief of her native tribe, the result of being the only daughter of the last long dead chief, is a childhood friend and companion of Barbara and considers the young Spanish woman her best friend. As rise, we meet the widower Don Francisco waiting in high expectation of his daughter Barbara’s return from the mainland having come of age in a convent. Natoma, who has met a handsome young American naval officer Paul Merrill, whose ship has been anchored off Santa Cruz for several days, arrives both to show Lt. Merrill her island and greet the return of Barbara. Natoma fancies herself in love with Lt. Merrill. Lt. Merrill probably has a girl in every port. We hear her extol the virtues of her island in the spring as well as the virtues of her dear friend Barbara. Unknown to all, Alvarado, a hot-headed Spaniard and distant cousin to Barbara has arrived with his friends Castro, Pico and Kagama, ostensibly to hunt, but also with marriage to Barbara as his more important goal. Castro, a rough and ready half-breed, has set similar sights on Natoma since he would then acquire the wealth of what is left of her tribe once he married her. The build and highlight of Act I comes at that moment when Lt. Merrill looks upon Barbara for the first time and love blooms. Thus, in Act I we launch a major love triangle between Natoma, Paul and Barbara as well as define the two major threats in the opera – Alvarado to Barbara and Castro to Natoma.
Act II is set in Santa Barbara at a Fiesta celebrating Barbara’s new adult status in front of the Mission Church. During the dancing and merry making, Alvarado attempts to kidnap Barbara, with only Natoma aware of the plot. In a diversionary move, Castro demands the challenge of a native dagger dance and is accepted by Natoma. During the ritual dance, Act II comes to a crashing finale when Natoma deliberately kills Alvarado, effectively saving Barbara but incurring the wrath of the citizens of Santa Barbara.
Act III opens inside the mission church into which Father Peralta has drawn Natoma in an effort to save her from the crowd. This final act becomes a psychological struggle between the ways of Natoma’s religion and the Catholic Church.
Victor Herbert used Indian themes and rhythms throughout as well as Spanish rhythms, representing the ruling country of California at the time. He was asked many times, how an Irish American could possibly compose Indian music and always replied:
“I have composed all of “Natoma’s” music, at least the greater part of it, out of fragments of Indian music, which I have collected and studied for some time past. However, I have pursued none of these melodies to their logical conclusion. If I used Indian music with all its original intervals and cadences it would become very monotonous, and so, of course, I have adapted it. But I have fashioned melodies by using fragments of this and that Indian theme.
There is also the question of harmonization. Indian music is not harmonized, and the moment a musician harmonizes it he has made it into something different. I hope, however, to have achieved the result I was striving for, to suggest the Indian character. In two instances I have introduced Indian tunes almost verbatim, of course with my own harmonization. The first of these occurs in the dagger dance, and the other is a melody which Natoma sings in the third act. In one song of Natoma’s, I make the accompaniment lean heavily upon the flute, as I think that instrument more than any other suggests the nature of Indian music.”
A difficulty that even Herbert was unaware he would reflect is that the composer was steeped and trained in the Viennese style of music. He strove continuously his entire career to write what he termed real American music. Using an old axiom, while one could take the man out of Stuttgart and Vienna, one could never totally remove Stuttgart and Vienna from the man. Yet, Herbert was America’s orchestration genius, the likes of whom have never been replicated. He was a theatrical composer who totally controlled his own sound through his orchestrations. When the baton came down the first time in 1911, the audience expected operetta music and were very surprised with what they got. Today we have no such expectation. When the baton comes down for the first time in 100 years, those of us in attendance will simply have the chance to hear Herbert’s genius in orchestration first hand in what he definitely considered his greatest composing accomplishment.
Herbert was an innovator – there is no grand overture – the work begins simply with 16 measures of prelude to set the mood before Don Francisco (a bass) sings an explanatory aria to launch the story. It ends in even more revolutionary style with only two people on stage – Natoma and Father Peralta with a lush double chorus of sung Latin intoned in the background before another set of nine orchestra only measures sweeps Natoma even deeper into the interior of the church, closing the door behind her and swelling in crescendo to the end. It might well be a musical replication of Nora’s exit in Ibsen’s Doll House (1879). For sure it was NOT Wagner nor Debussy nor Richard Strauss – or maybe it was a ghost of all of them.
There are no cowboys, no Indians killing white men and no white men taking Indian lands. Instead the work appears on paper to be an examination in both text and music of the interactions of Spanish, American, and Native American cultures. At its core it is a story of the dissolution of native culture and assimilation. In its own way, Natoma attempts to treat a Native American Heroine with depth and dignity in a time when few such attempts had been made. Did the American audience of 1911 understand this work? Chances are they did not, which makes it all the more important to hear this work in its entirety with no cuts or alterations of text today with today’s sensitivities and understanding of those cultural divides.
There are only 100 seats available to be one of the first to hear this work. Contact producer Alyce Mott at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your seat at this one of a kind, historic re-acquaintance with the first American grand opera.