Ah, the opera. The mere word conjures various reactions. For some music lovers, opera is cathartic and emotional, causing tears or laughter. For music historians, opera is a tool that teaches morals and can influence the public’s opinion on politics. For others, it is an opportunity to dress up and meet new people. While for some, it is simply yawn-inducing and something to be avoided at all costs.
Whatever your gut reaction may be, you cannot deny that opera, with all its intermissions, is truly a social event. Lucie Dodge, long before she was married, learned this fact as a seventeen-year-old debutante, newly out in New York society. Though her mother Flora Guest was around, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a family friend, took a special interest and acted as Lucie’s social guide, introducing her to everyone at her first ball, and even giving Lucie her box tickets to the opera for a January evening in 1908! As we read in her journal, Aunt Grace dressed up for the occasion. Grandpa John Bigelow couldn’t wait to leave, while Mr. Baron developed a headache. Mr. Pope could not get along with anyone. The Visconte de Perigny, on the other hand, thrived, flirting with Lucie and her cousin Dorothy Bigelow. That night, Lucie learned that one doesn’t just go to the opera to watch and listen (that is only one aspect of attending). You talk with your box-mates, share jokes and laughter, commiserate over the length of the performance, and learn quite quickly who gets along with whom. You invite others to develop and strengthen relationships—something Lucie continued to do the rest of her life as seen by her correspondence.
This season’s opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini is about just that: relationships. Ruggiero, the knight who is engaged to Princess Bradamante, is trapped on the island of the sorceress Alcina, who seduces men until she gets bored and turns them into plants. The loyal Princess Brandamante is worried about her beloved knight and sends the good magician Melissa to free her Ruggiero from the oppressive power of Alcina. Will the evil Alcina continue to beguile Ruggiero until she turns him into a plant? Will he be trapped on the island, forever separated from his Princess? Or will the good Melissa release Ruggiero from the spell and help him remember his duty and love for the Princess? There’s only one way to find out. The performance is Sunday, June 25, 2023, at 4:00pm. Come with the people. Stay for the music.
Transcription: “Mrs. Vanderbilt sent us an opera box which Mother left me to fill while she and Lionel went with young Mrs. Jack Astor. I had some trouble filling it as I knew so very few people well enough to invite, having been in N.Y. only 2 nights and met everybody for the first time. Finally I got rather an odd party together. Aunt Grace chaperoned us, and looked very lovely doing it. Grandpa sat behind getting more bored with every quarter of an hour, making audible comments and moves to leave, which Aunt Grace contrived to suppress until the beginning of the last act, when he refused to stay any longer and we had all to go because Aunty quite properly thought that at his age he should not go alone. My pretty cousin Dorothy Bigelow was the other girl and Mr. Baron, and an American architect Mr Pope, and the Visconte de Perigny were the other men. None of them had met each other before. Baron talked only to me and said the opera bored him and he had a headache anyway: the American architect heartily disliked the Italian and the Frenchman and showed it. Perigny alone was completely happy, flirting frankly with my cousin and me. I could have been a good deal amused at the contents of my box if I had not been disturbed by reflecting that they were too utterly uncongenial to enjoy themselves.”
Jan. 8, 1908. LBR journal.