What does opera have to do with genealogy?! Both have endured for centuries. Opera survived plague, tyranny, war, and time. Genealogy is the study of people who survived the same hazards. When I learned that a 1767 Smallpox epidemic and an 1859 Cholera epidemic had passed through the villages of my German ancestors and that my then (in 1859) two-year-old great grandmother and my then five-year-old great grandfather lived among the many who died, I realized that everyone alive today descends from survivors.

Many people who avoid opera could appreciate it with some experience. Realize that any art, literature, theory, religion, music, etc. that endures (still has viewers, readers, believers, listeners) for a long time must have substantial appeal. Opera lovers will agree that opera enriches your life. Others are missing out on a good thing.

A grand study isn’t necessary to enjoy opera, nor will you be hampered by the foreign languages of most operas. Learn some basic information, relax and listen! National Public Radio, low on the FM dial, broadcasts the Metropolitan Opera from New York City on Saturday afternoons in the Fall and Winter. Metropolitan Opera Association’s house opened in October of 1883. While the rich of New York were enjoying Gounod’s Faust in mid-Manhattan, at the southern tip of Manhattan our emigrant ancestors were being “processed” into this country at Castle Garden which preceded Ellis Island. CDs of operas are sold in music stores and on the internet, and can be borrowed from your library. Better yet, attend a live performance. I promise that you will be thrilled from the overture to the final curtain.

An opera is a story told in music. The characters sing their lines. The music of these songs is the loveliest in the world. Sometimes trained voices like Andrea Bocelli sing/record operatic songs for a concert/recording because they are beautiful and popular. Opera is a wonderful combination of human voice and orchestral instruments. Should you want to understand the story of an opera, read the libretto — the book of the opera’s story and music. You will be given one in the language of the country you are in as you enter a theater. There are also brief librettos in opera encyclopedias.

A popular opera like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute can be found in many books, such as Davide Pizzigoni’s illustrated book with German and English lyrics and a two-CD set of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus’s 1937 performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini in Salzburg. This particular opera has a delightfully amusing story — a good choice for children as well as adults. The full range of Mozart’s genius is evident in The Magic Flute — a work intended as popular entertainment but transformed into a wondrous work of art. Many operas are comedic, and it amazes me that in the 21st century we find amusing the same ideas that fans found amusing in the 18th century. Opera is about life and love but is not all “heavy” drama.

In addition to The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote in German) in 1791, Mozart wrote 21 operas, including the popular and gay The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and Don Giovanni which premiered in Prague in 1787. Prague loved Mozart. Czechs did and do love music. It is said that among any four Czechs, three of them play musical instruments. Sometime after Bohemia recovered from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) it was called “the music conservatory of Europe”, its musicians and composers free again to pursue more than their personal survival.

Gioacchino Rossini wrote 38 operas including The Barber of Seville, a comic opera also about Figaro. Ludwig Van Beethoven composed Fidelio (1805) with the theme human freedom, an appropriate theme for our peasant ancestors who left their European homelands for exactly that. Richard Wagner was exposed to opera as a child, especially the work of Carl Maria von Weber, and was inspired to create a German type of opera, even writing his own librettos (the story and the lyrics, in addition to the music). His works include The Flying Dutchman about an ill-fated ship, Lohengrin which contains the commonly-used wedding march, and The Ring of the Nibelung, consisting of four separate operas which are musically magnificent.

Giuseppe Verdi was born to Italian peasants. His talent for musical composition was enhanced by his exposure to opera as a child. Verdi wrote Rigoletto, based on the writings of Victor Hugo, Otello and Falstaff, based on Shakespeare, the grand Aida, and others, all sharing a naturalistic realism. Aida was commissioned for the celebration of the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, though not completed until two years later. Giacomo Puccini wrote La Boheme about bohemian lifestyle, not Bohemia, and others.

The first Czech opera was The Tinker (1826) by Frantisek Skroup. Czech composer Bedrich Smetena wrote The Bartered Bride (Prodana nevesta in Czech), one of the great folk operas of all time, and others. ‘Bartered Bride’s first act has a Bohemian polka not unlike those heard in Oxford Junction. Egan Pollack was a Prague-born conductor who worked as chorus master and conductor in several European cities and in Chicago for two years. Influenced by Smetana, Antonin Dvorak, born near the Vlatava River north of Prague, wrote a great body of music including nine operas filled with Bohemian folk-like songs and dances. While serving three years as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvorak summered in Spillville, Iowa. He wrote a cantada “The American Flag” for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

Carmen was written by Georges Bizet. Charles Gounod composed Faust based on the drama of the same name by Goethe, “the father of German literature”. One of the world’s most popular operas, Faust overflows with wonderful melodies.

Most of the operas performed today were written by the above and others in Europe and prior to 1914 when the world went to war. Operas written since then include some in English like George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (several earlier operas were based on that Shakespeare play). Britten wrote Gloriana on commission for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation ceremonies in 1953.

Many of you who live/lived in Oxford Junction, Iowa will recall that an Opera House stood on what is now Junior and Shirley Koranda’s property where Highway 136 turns a corner. After checking several sources including many issues of the Oxford Mirror, I learned that Frank Nowachek, a Czech immigrant from near Oxford Jct.’s sister city in South Bohemia, built the two-story hall in 1880. He named it National Hall and it was also known as Nowachek Hall and the Opera House, and later Shedek’s Opera House. My research is in Wregie Library, O.J., in the Vertical File. I found no evidence that a true opera was ever performed in the hall, but many concerts, dances, plays, lectures, parties, etc. were held there for 40 to 50 years. Opera gathers people with a mutual interest to observe a themed musical performance, contributing to their cultural awareness. Oxford Jct.’s Opera House gathered people with mutual interests to observe and sometimes participate in various activities, most with music and rich with the culture of that special community.  JN

References:
The First Book of the Opera, Noel Streatfeild
Encyclopedia of the Opera, David Ewen.