Lucy Hatem is an intern at WQXR.
5 Times Abraham Lincoln Showed His Love of Opera
Thursday, October 06, 2016
Unlike other musical presidents, Abraham Lincoln could neither read music, sing, or play an instrument. He was nonetheless a great music lover, and music provided a respite from the stress of governing during one of the hardest times in American history. He especially enjoyed singing of all kinds: a great fan of popular ballads of the time, he also loved grand opera and attended performances whenever he could.
1. He attended the opera nearly 30 times during his presidency.
Lincoln’s political opponents criticized him for spending too much time at the opera while soldiers were dying on the battlefield. His response was simple: “The truth is I must have a change of some sort or die.” The opera was rarely pure escapism, though: some performances reflected current events. One production of Donizetti’s La figlia del reggimento, which the president attended in May 1862, incorporated patriotic American music into the comic story of love in the French army. Clara The American soprano Louise Kellogg played the title role that night. She recalled the audience’s patriotic fervor: “The audience cheered and cried and let themselves go in the hysterical manner of people wrought up by great national excitements…I sang the Figlia better than I had ever sung anything yet, and found myself wondering as I sang, how many of my cadet friends of a few months earlier were already on the front.”
(Video: Mirella Freni sings the aria “Ciascun lo dice” from La figlia. Donizetti wrote the opera in French, which is how it’s normally performed now; this is from the Italian version, which is what Lincoln would have heard.)
He attended the US premiere run of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera shortly before his inauguration in 1861.
Lincoln’s appearance at the Academy of Music in New York prompted a standing ovation and a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the first intermission. The opera’s plot, which involves the assassination of a king, would later prove to have been horribly prophetic. Verdi initially intended to set the opera in Sweden, but censors objected to the apparent reference to a recent attempted assassination of Napoleon III. Verdi then changed the setting to a more distant locale: 17th-century America.
(Video: The Met recently presented Verdi’s opera, restoring the original Swedish setting.)
Lincoln was the only president to have an inaugural opera staged for him.
Friedrich von Flotow’s comic Martha was presented during Lincoln’s second inauguration, in 1865. The opera was hugely popular at the time. It is now known chiefly for a famous tenor aria, “Ach! so fromm” (often sung in Italian as “M’appari tutt’amor”), and for incorporating “The Last Rose of Summer” as an aria for Martha in Act 2.
(Video: Tenor Jonas Kaufmann performs “Ach! So fromm” from Martha.)
The Marine Band performed operatic arrangements for Lincoln.
Francis Scala was the director of the Marine Band during Lincoln’s presidency, and he created many band arrangements of popular operatic excerpts. The “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Gounod’s Faust was a particular favorite of Lincoln’s. When the band was criticized for playing opera rather than patriotic music in wartime, Lincoln defended Scala’s choices.
(Video: A more recent Marine Band arrangement of Faust. The band plays under Lt. Col. William F. Santelmann, its director from 1940-1955. Listen for the “Soldiers’ Chorus” melody at 7:55.)
Meda Blanchard, the first opera singer to perform in the White House, sang for Lincoln.
Opera singers from Jenny Lind to Jessye Norman have sung at the White House over the years. The first opera singer to ever perform there, however, was Meda Blanchard in 1861. She was a Washington, D.C. native just returned from studying music abroad. Lincoln was so impressed by her performance that he sent her flowers.
(Video: Maria Callas sings “Casta diva” from Norma, one of Meda Blanchard’s selections for the first White House performance by an opera singer.)