Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Re-creating the operatic repertoire from an 1884 London costume guide

Thanks to a post from Mental Floss, I was recently introduced to the 1884 book Male Character Costumes for Fancy Dress Balls and Private Theatricals, a guide to appropriate costume-wear for the trendy 1884 man, both in the ballroom and for the stage.  Naturally this book is plenty of fun in and of itself, but what struck me in particular was the number of costumes that were influenced by opera.  One of my scholarly pursuits is trying to figure out what works were known by general audiences; our view of what was known historically is heavily skewed by what scholars later took as their points of study, and therefore there are often significant gaps in our knowledge of what the average audience member was attending throughout Europe.  Joseph Kerman and many other scholars have written about our short-comings due to the primacy that the canon of musical works has occupied with scholars.  I mention Kerman in particular because he makes a distinction between the canon and repertoire, suggesting that repertoire has more to do with works that are played/heard.  These may not be part of the imaginary museum of musical works that have traditionally provided the fodder for scholarly inquiry.  This guide turns out to be an ideal means of evaluating which works were part of the popular repertoire--and therefore presumably known by the audience for which this book was intended.  As the list shows, there are many works that might not be expected, along with a dearth of works that might be expected (spoiler alert: Wagner only has one entry).

A few caveats.  First, this collection is not a universal guide, but seems pretty clearly tied to London.  There are numerous advertisements included in the book and the guide itself makes reference to costume shops where outfits can be purchased.  That being said, I suspect--for reasons outlined below--that this guide may have originated in France.  Second, I am not providing very much historical context for this guide (this is SGS, not a scholarly article).  I don't have a very good knowledge of what was happening in London theater at this time, but if anyone does, I hope that this kind of information can help with other research.  Third, it is entirely possible that there are more operas in the guide which I was unable to identify.  For instance, there is a reference to some work called Heloise and Abeilard, but I did not find anything for the stage on this subject. 

Not all of the costumes are for/from operas, of course.  There are--not surprisingly--numerous ethnic costumes, ranging from the unusual (Norwegian?) to the highly politically incorrect (I'll leave that to your imagination) to the huh (both Algerian costumes are Jews) to the strangely specific ('Fisher Boy of Nice').  There is the occasional creature, such as the Bear, which is 'simply a dress made out of a bear skin' and can be rented from your local (London) costume store.  Many of the costumes are historic in nature, including a slew from 18th-century France--for one of them, a 'conical hat of beaver' is mandatory.  Because this is also a guide for stage productions, there are several Shakespearean plays.  One of the most puzzling suggestions that I found is for Macbeth, who should be wearing sandals.  Scotland and sandals do not go together in my mind.  In case you are curious, a Tourist needs a straw hat and alpine staff

Of the almost 120 costumes though, at least 48 are from operas or operettas, which means that around 40% of them are tied to specific works.  In part, this high percentage might be expected since these costumes are also appropriate for amateur theatrics--it is not hard to imagine, for instance, that the costume suggestion for The Pirates of Penzance would have been seen on the contemporary stage.  But in some cases the prevalence of opera characters for specific categories suggests that what was seen on stage affected the general public's understanding of eras or places.  Many of the entries for Spain are directly associated with operas such as Carmen (Don Jose and Escamillo) or The Barber of Seville/Marriage of Figaro/Don Giovanni (Figaro, Don Juan, Leporello).  In terms of historical characters, Pollione from Norma is presented as an example of 'ancient Roman.'  While many of the operas are listed in brackets with the entry, in some cases, the characters were presumably recognizable without this additional information--Figaro, Leporello, and William Tell all fit into this category.  In the case of Don Juan (Don Giovanni), a description of the specific costume of baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure is provided: 'Doublet of plum-colored velvet, with trunks to match.  Sleeves of striped silk.  Sleeveless overcoat of velvet, lined silk.  Lavender silk tights.  High leather boots reaching nearly to the hips.  Large hat with a plume.  Leather belt and sword belt.  White gauntlets.'  I have some questions about the combination of lavender and plum.  I also have some questions about whether a London audience would recognize this costume, since I'm not sure that Faure performed there.  The preponderance of French costumes, particularly historical French costumes, makes me wonder if there is an earlier French version of this guide which was then translated and modified for London.  However, since this is SGS and not a scholarly article, I am leaving that right there.

I also made some assumptions about the references to Faust.  As a literary and stage figure, Faust was, of course, a nineteenth-century favorite, so it is entirely possible that references to him are not tied directly to Gounod's 1859 opera.  However, the opera was immensely popular, so I included these characters as connected to the stage work.  Also, Valentin is a character in the opera, so that assumption seems reasonable.

It should come as little surprise that the single work with the largest number of costumes (six in total) is Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, a phenomenally popular opera that started dropping out of the repertoire in the early twentieth century and rarely appears on stage now.  The question of why Huguenots is rarely seen today is a complicated one: Wagner's disdain for the opera (and its composer) seemed to have little effect on its popularity during the nineteenth century, although it may have had a disproportionate effect on scholars interested in studying the opera during the twentieth.  The costume guide has specific outfits for Marcel, Saint Bris, Conte de Nevers, Raoul, Valentin and Page.  If you're curious, 'Page' costumes are quite popular and likely provided a generic look for historic stage works.  There are ten entries for various pages, primarily for both British and French courts.

What might come as a greater surprise is the number of works by Offenbach included in the guide.  Seven are mentioned, ranging from Les contes d'Hoffmann to his operettas.  In fact, no composer is more heavily represented.  The runner-up is Charles Lecocq, a composer virtually forgotten today, but one who had four different works featured in the guide.  Verdi comes in at only two (Rigoletto and Manrico from Trovatore).  The preponderance of French works reinforces my theory about the possible French origins of this guide, but also suggests that London audiences were familiar with them as well.

One of my favorite costume notes from the opera characters is for Jean de Nivelle, the titular character from Léo Delibes' 1880 work.  He requires a 'cap of maintenance,' which, as it turns out, is an actual thing and pretty fancy besides:

Here is his costume:

Some, but not all, of the costumes do have illustrations ('Norwegian' has one, for example).  I am a bit skeptical about that qualifying as a Cap of Maintenance.

I would like to invite other scholars interested in questions of repertories to seek these types of unorthodox sources to help fill in the many blind spots that continue to exist in our disciplines.  While this post is nothing more than a superficial skimming of a source, I hope that it shows the wide variety of primary documents that can be used for research.  Also, if you need inspiration for Halloween, this costume guide should provide you with a great start (particularly if you know where to rent a dress of bear skin).

The Costume List, organized by composer [a slash indicates that a character is listed as ideal for depicting an ethnic/historic type.  For example, Scindia from Le roi de Lahore is a prototype for 'Hindoo prince'] :

Auber, Daniel: Italian Brigand from Fra Diavolo
Audran, Edmond: Fratellini and Page from La Mascotte
Bellini, Vincenzo: Pollione/Roman, ancient from Norma
Bizet, Georges: Escamillo/Spanish Bullfighter and Don Jose/Spanish Brigand from Carmen
Cœdès , August: Abbe from La belle Bourbonnaise
Delibes, Léo: Compte de Charolaise, Isolin and Jean de Nivelle from Jean de Nivelle
Flotow, Friedrich von: Fabrice from L'Ombre
Gounod, Charles: Faust, Mephistopheles and Valentine from Faust
Halévy, Fromental: Eleazar and Leopold from La Juive
Lecocq, Charles: Trenitz from La fille de Madame Angot
Lecocq, Charles: Moor (Spanish) and Marasquin from Giroflé-Girofla
Lecocq, Charles: Annabal from La Marjolaine
Lecocq, Charles: Podestat from La petite mariée
Massenet, Jules: Alim and Scindia/Hindoo Prince from Le roi de Lahore
Meyerbeer, Giacomo: Marcel, Saint Bris, Conte de Nevers, Raoul, Valentin and Page from Les Huguenots
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Don Juan and Leporello from Don Giovanni
Offenbach, Jacques: Capamstrel from La belle Lurette
Offenbach, Jacques: Bernadille, Coquebert, Delicat and Flameche from La boulangère a des écus 
Offenbach, Jacques: Bibletto and Huntsman (Grotesque) from Les Braconniers
Offenbach, Jacques: First Empire [costume] from Les contes d'Hoffmann
Offenbach, Jacques: Drogan and Gendarmes from Geneviève de Brabant
Offenbach, Jacques: Jupiter and Pluton from Orphée aux enfers
Offenbach, Jacques: Fridolin/Hungarian from Le roi carotte
Rossini, Giacomo: Figaro/Spanish Troubadour from The Barber of Seville [Obvi, Figaro could also be from Mozart]
Sullivan, Arthur: Smuggler from The Pirates of Penzance
Verdi, Giuseppe: Rigoletto from Rigoletto
Verdi, Giuseppe: Manrico from Il Trovatore
Wagner, Richard: Lohengrin from The Swan Knight

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