Sunday, May 9, 2010

AN UP TO DATE GRAND OPERA

Attendant to the juvenile operetta was the glee club, usually at the college or university level. Although some remain today (and favour returning thanks to the television show Glee), the glee club is also quickly going the way of the musical dodo. Nevertheless, during its heyday, the traditional glee club — kind of a pop chorus — was the sort of genre that bore commissioned works, much as the juvenile operetta did.

One such insanely popular work was AN ACT OF UP TO DATE GRAND OPERA (1896) by the pseudonymous "Frank J. Smith" (in reality a reporter named H. B. Stevens), with a libretto adapted from a news article he wrote for the Chicago Record of an apartment fire.

A short work, only 30 pages long, UP TO DATE (written for the New York University Glee Club) chronicles the events in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment during a seemingly deadly blaze. I say "seemingly" because even though death appears eminent, the residents of the fifth floor act much more interested in singing about their plight than actually doing anything about it... like, you know, leaving...

... which, when you think about it, isnt that far off from what goes on in traditional grand opera.

Be that as it may, UP TO DATE takes place in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. He's reading a newspaper when she slowly and cautiously approaches.

MRS. TYLER. I think I smell smoke.

MR. TYLER. She thinks she smells smoke.

... which is repeated several times until he comes to a realization:

What does it mean?
What does it mean?
This smell of smoke may indicate
That we'll be burned.
O awful fate.

... which leads to an extended duet in which they rail against the Fates and describe, in somewhat gory detail, "writhing in the curling flames" and what a dreadful thing it is to "fry and sizz". Once this is well established, the chorus — their neighbours — join them. There's six more pages of singing that they really should go before they all die. Then a janitor shows up:

I come to inform you
That you must quickly fly
The fearful blaze is spreading
To tarry is to die
The floors underneath you
Are completely burned away

They cannot save the building
So now escape I pray

The chorus responds:

The flames are roaring loudly
Oh what a fearful sound
You can hear the people shrieking
As they leap and strike the ground
Ah horror overtakes me
And I merely pause to say
That the building's doomed for certain
So haste o haste away
La la la la la la la la la away
La la la la la la la la la away

With six more pages of telling us they must "haste away", they finally do, in a Grand March to the fire escapes.

Stevens knows just how long to carry his joke, and along the way, he snatches a bit of Puccini here, a bit of Verdi there, and a whole lot of Wagner over there. We get waltzes and mazurkas and polkas and dramatic recitatives and a concluding march, all thrown at us with such dizzying speed that the humour actually remains fresh all the way to the end. Lest you think it sounds a bit too relentless, about the best I can compare it to is the Grand Grand Festival Overture written by Sir Gerald Hoffnung in the 1950s for the London Philharmonic, as part of his many hilarious Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festivals. The eight minute overture rattles through every possible cliché; just when you think that dominant seventh is going to resolve into a frenetically glorious ending... the piccolo picks up the main theme, which cascades through the rest of the orchestra like a tidal wave, and we're off once more. So it is here with UP TO DATE: every time you think "Okay, they're gonna cut out of here", a soloist interrupts to remind us that the building is on fire... and the chorus dissolves into yet another variation of "We really should leave".

UP TO DATE was wildly popular: there are records of its performance through to the 1920s, with a smattering into the 1930s. As far as I can tell, this was Stevens' only musical composition — and I say "composition" in the loosest sense, as today it would be better described as "sampling". Still, it's an engagingly easy piece that would stand well in a program of works by PDQ Bach or Spike Jones. Although Stevens scored it strictly for piano, I read through it wondering what it would sound like performed by the New York Philharmonic, with the residents sung by a fifty-piece chorus. Such a bloated monstrosity might put it waaaaaaaaaay over the edge, but it'd be fun driving it there.

1 comment:

Ruskell said...

A friend just gave me copy of this today and I LOVE IT! Glad to know you enjoyed it as well.