University of Rochester Library Bulletin: William Dean Howell's Opera

Volume X · Winter 1955 · Number 2
William Dean Howell's Opera


Among the sixty-two original letters of William Dean Howells in the Treasure Room at Rush Rhees Library are six addressed to Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, five of which relate to the production of Howells' one experiment with comic opera, A Sea-Change, or, Love's Stowaway, a Lyricated Farce in Two Acts and an Epilogue. Howells wrote the libretto for this comic opera during the Winter of 1883-1884 and the music was composed by George Henschel, who had come to the United States in 1881 to be the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Apparently an evil fate hovered over the production of the opera for public view, for two sad blows ultimately prevented its presentation on the stage. The manager of the Bijou Theater in Boston contracted to present the opera on November 5, 1884, and in Howells' first letter to Mrs. Thurber, dated April 28, 1886, he asserts that the terms offered him by the manager were $50 a night in Boston, and $35 in other localities; however, the manager fell off the end of a pier one night in trying to get aboard his yacht, fractured his skull, and died, and as Howells says, "with him [went] our legal hold upon a potential future." He had written to his father, William Cooper Howells, in a skeptical spirit that "if it succeeds it will be a very nice thing for me. But I have made my fortune in the theater too often to be elated of this chance."

The second opportunity to produce the opera come about two years later. Mrs. Thurber, the wife of a New York businessman, had founded the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 with the support of Andrew Carnegie, William K. Vanderbilt and others, and the same year organized the American Opera Company under the musical directorship of Theodore Thomas. It gave a series of performances at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia early in 1886 and then went on tour.

Mrs. Thurber's offer to produce A Sea-Change as part of the repertoire of the American Opera Company was eagerly welcomed by Howells. His letters of October 18 and November 2, 1886, deal with these negotiations and later, on November 15, 1886, he declares that in his letter of a fortnight ago he had acceded to her offer of $1,000 for the delay of the opera until next season, to be paid immediately, and leaving further negotiations for a personal interview. There is also a reply from Mrs. Thurber, in her hand, written on Howells' epistle to her, dated October 18, 1886, which states that she felt that Howells should set the price for the opera.

Perhaps the latter type of unbusiness-like conduct on her part explains why the opera was never produced.The Memoirs of Theodore Thomas state that, although a number of wealthy men, among them the most able financiers of the country, lent the prestige of their names as members of the board of directors, officers, and incorporators of this company, the actual management was left to the sole guidance of one inexperienced woman and her salaried manager. Perhaps the failure, financially speaking, of the company was due not so much to poor management in general as to the grandiose ideas of Mrs. Thurber with regard to stage sets, costumes, size of orchestra and chorus, and such things. Except for this major difficulty, the company might have been a sound financial investment, with audience response sufficient to pay all reasonable expenses. An additional weakness was that the financing was national in character and no one city felt responsibility for it.

When the enterprise came to the inevitable monetary catastrophe, Mrs. Thurber was harshly criticized, but she and Thomas "stood by the ship" to the end. The fact that the first year, 1886, was artistically successful did not help the balance sheet. The operas produced were all sung in English, as originally planned, but they were the standard representative ones, and no new operas, such as A Sea-Change, were ventured upon. The Company's name was changed to the National Opera Company for the 1887 season but the tour to the Pacific coast almost ended there and it was only by the heroic measures of the conductor that the troupe finally reached Buffalo and disbanded there. With this final debacle Howells' hopes for the theatrical production of his opera vanished.

Howells then decided to publish A Sea-Change both in magazine and book form. In the collection is his letter to Fred Parsons, manager of the Art Department of Harper & Brothers, dated April 27, 1888, which discusses critically Barnard's sketches for the publication in Harper's Weekly, particularly the figure of Muriel, the heroine, and the stagesettings for the steamer scenes. It appears that Barnard had visualized Muriel as a massive, full-blown, type but Howells insists that she is slight, American-girlish, stylish, and chic and, for once, his suggestion was heeded, for the actual sketches as they appeared July 14, 1888, show Muriel as Howells had envisaged her. While admitting that it is hard to translate literary intentions into pictures, Howells further protested that the spirit of the opera was fantastic rather than caricaturish.

Howells' fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan is pointed up by Mr. Vane, the heroine's father in A Sea-Change, when he says "isn't this last song of yours rather too much like some of Gilbert and Sullivan's things?" and Theron Gay, the hero, answers "There is a slight resemblance." But with the crash of Mrs. Thurber's company ended all hope that we might learn whether or not the audiences of Howells' day would have greeted it with the enthusiasm the English operettas created.

However, this disappointment obviously did not end Howells' friendship with Mrs. Thurber, for a letter to her, dated December 5, 1894, states that he is glad to learn that Mr. Edwin Emerson has been chosen to write the libretto for Dvorak's Hiawatha (which he never did, by the way), for Howells felt that Emerson would do it with taste and a due sense of all that is finest in the poem. He praises the young Emerson as clever and cultivated and is pleased that he will get a chance to get his work before the public in such distinguished company.

But to return for a final thought about the opera. As Firkins says, the lyrics have flexibility and are prolific, nimble, and surprising. One wonders if Henschel's music equalled Sullivan's or whether, perhaps, the "tongue in cheek" attitude that Howells, the realist and disbeliever in magic, could not help inserting in and between his lines, hindered its possible stage production and its popular acceptance by opera lovers.