Happy 10th Anniversary, On Site Opera!

By Mark Schubin

A short walk from where On Site Opera produced Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, at the Wave Hill estate in the Bronx, is a giant sequoia tree (left, photo by Benjamin Swett). It’s a mere baby, having been planted in 1975 (one in California was found to have been at least 3,200 years old at the time it was cut down). The Society of Municipal Arborists named the giant sequoia the 2021 Urban Tree of the Year. By the time the Wave Hill tree is as old as opera, it should be quite impressive! But how old is opera?

On Site Opera is ten years old in 2022, which might not seem like a lot, but it’s older than many current opera companies and older than Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company when it ceased to exist in 1910. The World’s Work: A History of Our Time (Doubleday, Page & Co.) in 1909 declared “New York the Greatest Opera City in the World” based on 230 performances in a year from just the Manhattan Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera.

A 2015 survey of opera in New York City found 908 performances by 115 opera companies (including On Site Opera). The company with the most performances was the Metropolitan Opera. Deciding even its age isn’t easy. The current Metropolitan Opera Association was born in 1932 (when the opera house and performing company were merged into one non-profit organization) and moved into its current opera house in 1966. The first performance at the old Metropolitan Opera House (left) was in 1883, and the company that built it was organized in 1880. There was also opera in New York City before the Met.

The large opera house with which the Met initially competed was the Academy of Music, whose patrons included Abraham Lincoln. Next door was Tony Pastor’s Opera House. Before those was (among others) the Astor Opera House, scene of a deadly riot in 1849 over who better performed Macbeth. Before that, in 1833 Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, at age 84, founded the first dedicated opera house in the U.S. (right) in Manhattan. And, before that, opera was performed in New York City in theaters and other venues, starting in the 18th century.

New York City, however, was not the birthplace of opera. The earliest opera still being performed in the 21st century is Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which premiered in Mantua in 1607. And it was not the first opera. The earliest opera for which we know the score still exists is Euridice, with music composed primarily by Jacopo Peri; it premiered in Florence in 1600. But Peri also contributed music to Dafne, performed two years earlier. Although much of Dafne’s music has been lost, the New York Public Library has what a paper in the journal Music and Letters says is the original libretto of that performance (shown at left).

Was Dafne the first opera? Chapter 3 of Opera: a History in Documents says it was, but chapter 1 of the same book describes a similar entertainment by the same creative team almost a decade earlier. According to The History of Italian Opera, Poliziano’s Orfeo, more than a century before that earlier entertainment, was “opera before opera.” Leonardo da Vinci designed sets for one of its productions (right). And The New York Times called the 13th-century Play of Daniel a “proto-opera.”

Does opera go back even earlier? To answer, it might help to ask why we know Galileo by his first name. A Galileo contemporary, Italian astronomer and scientist Giovanni Riccioli, is known by his last name. So is opera composer Claudio Monteverdi, who procured a Cremonese violin for Galileo to give his nephew. We know Galileo by his first name because there was already a famous Galilei, Vincenzo (left), the scientist’s father, a musician and composer who worked out the equations of tuned strings and pipes, a member of the Florentine “camerata” that led to the Peri operas, and an author who published in 1581 a book on old and new music. He is credited with coming up with opera’s recitative and with suggesting that the ancient Greeks performed plays with music, much like today’s operas.

It’s more than 400 years since Monteverdi’s Orfeo. At that age, the Wave Hill giant sequoia should be impressive. As best we know, it’s roughly 2,700 years since the advent of ancient Greek theater. At that age, the sequoia should truly be giant. And, with your help, On Site Opera will be on site for an operatic celebration of its longevity.

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