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[Preface] [Orville's Worlds] [Family] [Young Orville ] [To New York] [To London, and back] [The Second Marriage, 1913 – 1917] [The Third Marriage, Rehabilitation] [The Met Years, Two careers 1920-1924] [Photogallery]

Orville’s Worlds

Orville’s life evolved from mid-west small-town culture to world-capital grand opera. While these are seemingly polar opposites, his hometown was not so isolated or primitive as might be imagined. First is to clarify what is meant by mid-west. Where the old National Road leaves Wheeling, WV and crosses the Ohio River, it leaves behind Pennsylvania’s mountains and enters a broad expanse of flat lands extending to the Rockies. For purposes here, the mid-west starts at the Ohio River, where begins a vast farming region that cultivated a host of small towns. With the land primarily for farming, towns were spaced according to how far farmers could conveniently travel, and were only large enough for commerce to support their limited region.

Bountiful agriculture assured that these towns were generally prosperous, with active economies and attractive residences built by both townspeople and retired farmers. While many in America’s westward migration preferred river routes, at least to the Mississippi, the National Road (essentially 20th century Route 40, paralleled later by I-70) was the primary northern land route, starting at Cumberland, MD and connecting state capitals of Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana on its way to Vandalia, Illinois. A primary conduit for westbound caravans of Conestoga wagons, the road was a source of commerce, cultural exchange, and new residents. Adjacent towns filled with a spectrum of cultures, and over the 19th century accumulated a variety of industries, such as producer gas plants for street illumination and a myriad of manufactured products ranging from apple peelers to windmills. The growing railroad network provided additional industry, exchange, growth, and communication.

The 1840’s saw a rush of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine of 1843, and after 1850 came Germans fleeing restrictive regional monarchies and military conscription in armies-for-hire. Midwest farming towns thus had significant German populations, where schools were conducted in German in the morning and English in the afternoon, which stopped only at WWI (Lawrence Welk had an accent because he was born in Strasburg, North Dakota, speaking only German until age 21). In addition to the modern image of Santa Claus, Germans brought machine trades and a variety of traditional clubs and societies. Not limited to farm towns, many large mid-west cities were highly German, boasting industry, sausage and meat packing plants, and breweries. Cincinnati was known as “Porkopolis” and had five breweries into mid-20th century: Bavarian, Burger, Hudepol, Schoenling, and Wiedemann. Similar to cattle drives, Indiana farmers gathered for annual hog drives down to Cincinnati. Some Hoosiers went there for opera.

Rural 19th century life followed ancient rhythms that nudged people toward adult roles at a young age. With a life expectancy below 50 years, independent youth were often earning their way before they might have graduated from high school, which many never did. They could have considerable freedom by mid-adolescence, choosing their own direction with income from agriculture or urban factories. Major upheavals from significant depressions in the 1890’s and 1930’s, plus two world wars, carried these social patterns into mid-20th century, and carried many young Americans across the country and around the globe (just as they brought may refugees and immigrants to America). Orville was a wandering offspring of these cultures and attitudes, which is reflected in how he approached his life, family, and children.

Located just northeast of Indianapolis, Muncie, Indiana was typical of mid-west towns. Adjacent to the National Road, it benefited from a cultural mix and ample exposure to social influences flowing through the region. In addition to being near the state capitol, its agriculture and industry supported an active economy. Among its principle manufacturers was the Ball Jar Company, maker of fruit canning jars, and source of the family fortune associated with Ball State University. Victorian America was becoming modernly mobile for the adventurous and the talented. Orville was both, and even in small-town Indiana was exposed to other like spirits who clearly emboldened him.

Orville’s youth had available only printed media, and predated ready availability of recorded music. But, many communities had a theater, frequently called an opera house, visited by the adventurous and the talented. Traveling performing troupes were common, and even traveling marionette shows presented popular plays. Summer tent shows and Chautauqua sites offered entertainment, music, and informative speakers. Such events expanded along rail routes into the 1920’s, aided during the 20th century by regional transportation via electric inter-urban lines. In addition, many communities were exposed to international culture through American melting pot effect.

Beyond that, lacking mass media and having limited in-home entertainment, personal daily life was enriched through local clubs and organizations. People have always gathered, socialized, and shared. There were numerous political, social, service, business, and fraternal organizations, plus clubs of all varieties and inclinations: athletic, literary, horticultural, artistic, theatrical, and certainly musical. Many would present for the entertainment, edification, and amusement of the public. Orville experienced music throughout his early life, in the home, in community choirs and choruses, and beyond. He knew something of opera by early adulthood.

Opera is two hours of full-throttle high-volume vocal power, rising over a full orchestra. It is essentially artistic shouting, akin to cultivated hog calling and yodeling, but possessing tonal quality, sustained perfect pitch, vocal agility and ornamentation, sweetness, artistic modulation, and a host of other qualities. Some scores are especially challenging, with runs, trills, octave changes, and a wide range of pitch. Whilst shouting, there are lyrics to be enunciated with clear diction, in one of several languages, rarely English (typically Italian, French, or German). The singer is also moving about and performing in a theatrical production, while shouting artistically. It is dramatic physical art. The opera singer’s week is something like yelling through college football on Saturday, and pro ball on Sunday. Voices can be damaged, they can be repaired, and they are prey to all manner of irritation, faults and disturbances, sickness, and fatigue.

Far beyond merely singing, opera requires skills obtained only by long hours of coaching and practicing. Lois Ewell, who sang opposite Orville at the Century Opera, described her New York voice teacher spending an entire year focused on perfecting six important tones to be produced properly, rather than from the throat. In four years of training with this coach, he had her sing only one full song, and that solely for teaching a specific point. This was four years of practice and drills in preparation for international grand opera. Felice Lyne, with Orville at the London Opera, described that she still felt unable to produce sufficient vocal power after several years working with one Paris instructor, so spent months seeking another coach who brought her voice to greater stage presence. Like Orville, these singers had unusual inherent talent and musical intelligence, which still required tremendous practice and development to reach a high level of operatic quality.

Opera presents life in song, with characters continually conversing and interacting through music. While this may seem corny and contrived, most theater (live or recorded) is artificial and corny drama, separated only by degrees. (Modern drama relies heavily on the illusion that realistic presentation implies realistic content.) Music is inherent in human emotion. Besides singing in the shower, we sometimes literally “burst into song” over events and occasionally “sing the blues”, while wailings of anguish or ecstasy are operatic at face value. Opera extends the metaphor, with people’s interactions literally harmonizing, and expresses the range of human feeling through vocal musical interpretations of passions and emotions. (Heavy leaning toward the emotional pushes opera toward the sappy end of entertainment.) At a lower level, classical cartoons employ classical music for similar effect. Music can express joy and tears; music can evoke joy and tears. The interaction is both metaphorical and real, opera striving to combine the metaphorical and real for evocative emotional impact.

There are jobs, careers, and passions, and it can be both productive and satisfying when these combine. Careers in the arts are frequently pure passions, pursued and practiced passionately. Such a course tends toward spontaneity, emotion, originality, sudden changes, instability and unpredictability, tempestuous relationships, and dependence on the passions of patrons and audiences. Opera ebbs and surges through a world of emotional and dramatic expectations. To support large theaters, orchestras, and casts, opera consumes substantial money, managed and spent passionately, which can be a risky combination. The art world lives the drama it endeavors to convey.

Artists are risk takers, presenting their work and themselves to be critiqued by the knowledgeable and assessed by the masses. Few of us would risk such exposure, performing artists risking the most personal exposure of all. While public speaking is a universal fear, performing artists seek the stage to present their voices, expressions, movements, and bodies for public review. They endure competitive and dismissive elders, failed auditions, publicly humiliating reviews, or simply anonymity. Even with success, they can rapidly pass from favor as a fleeting fad. Successful artists combine passion and talent with durable boldness, in which some combination of courage and spontaneity spurs them to leap, risk, and change. As already said, the art world lives the drama it endeavors to convey, and Orville was a performing artist who spent much of his life striving, changing, and working amid an art world rife with mercurial personalities.

Opera is an import, of limited demand, but of limited supply. As a European tradition, it arrived here with Europeans before the Revolution, and while it was performed here, Americans were a long time getting into the game. American composers and performers had limited presence before mid-19th century. By then, completely original American operas began appearing, primarily in eastern centers, but also in Chicago and other mid-western cities. Scott Joplin’s A Guest of Honor debuted in St. Louis in 1903. Still, a respected opera playbill read like an Italian menu. (Literally, in the case of chicken Tetrazzini, named after an Italian operatic soprano, and apparently created in San Francisco where she lived for many years.) Legitimate opera required cultivated European talent, to be appreciated by a cultivated audience.

With the Victorian rise of industrial wealth, New York City nouvelle riche lacked sufficient operatic venues, as the venerable Academy of Music would not admit them to its circle of the socially elite. The new elite families, including Roosevelt, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Astor, thus opened their Metropolitan Opera House in 1883. By 1886, opera was discontinued at the old Academy of Music, and in 1914 its theater on East 14th was demolished to build a Con Edison plant. The Metropolitan Opera quickly ascended to the lead of American opera, becoming known simply as “the Met”. Enrico Caruso began his stellar career with the Met in 1904, and soon the Met was presenting American works under the 1908-1935 reign of general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, previously general manager of La Scala in Milan, where Caruso had previously sung. By his second season Gatti-Casazza had debuted an opera in English, by a Boston composer, followed by a string of other home-grown works. In 1920, Gatti-Casazza debuted Cleopatra’s Night, with Orville Harrold as lead tenor. The fifth opera by American composer, Henry Hadley, this was possibly the source of the selection heard on radio by the author’s sister.

Inflation of the dollar is a final area in acclimating to Orville’s worlds. In the early 20th century, as Orville grew into adulthood, the average daily industrial wage grew from about $2 in 1900 to $3 at the beginning of WWI in 1914, which would be around $800 income per year. With Orville making about $10 per week in 1905, which was likely a six-day workweek, he was making very close to average wages. There has been about 50X inflation since that pre-war period, so that the $800 annual income is equivalent to about $40,000 now. A sum of $10,000 was very substantial then, approaching a half million dollars today. Average wages doubled from $3 to $6 per day during the WWI years. Moving into the “Roaring 20’s”, wages settled back a little from wartime inflation to about $5-$6 per day, or $1500 per year, still equivalent to today’s $40,000.

Orville could make higher than average wages on the New York stage, if he could stay employed, but New York was an expensive place to live and theater employment was spotty. A prominent operatic tenor was more exotic, demanding a very attractive income, but opera was of limited demand and employment could again be spotty and undependable, which was Orville’s situation during the war years. When he reached his peak period as a prominent tenor, Orville was earning the equivalent of today’s upper six-figure income.

Next...

[Preface] [Orville's Worlds] [Family] [Young Orville ] [To New York] [To London, and back] [The Second Marriage, 1913 – 1917] [The Third Marriage, Rehabilitation] [The Met Years, Two careers 1920-1924] [Photogallery]

 


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