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Thursday, January 26, 2012

BAM's Prehistory, Pt. 4: The Opening of the Academy

The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s great unveiling took place on January 15, 1861, just four months before the Civil War erupted. As national tensions were percolating, BAM’s opening night featured arias and songs from some of the most popular German and Italian Romantic composers, such as Weber, Bellini, Mozart, Verdi, and Donizetti. Performers included tenor Pasquale Brignoli and basso Agostino Giuliano Susini, both famous Italian singers pinched from the New York Academy of Music on 14th Street across the East River. Though the weather that evening was particularly stormy, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that
“Strips of new matting were spread on planks across the sidewalk, so that the daintiest slipper need not be soiled. The appearance of the house was beautiful in the extreme, and never had the youth and beauty of Brooklyn such an opportunity of seeing and being seen in their native city.”
Looking around the great new hall, the anonymous reporter continued:
“for our part, we could hardly realize that we were actually in Brooklyn, or that after the entertainment was ended, we had not a dreary journey of two miles before us, and stood a chance of losing our temper at the ferry.”

After a performance of the overture to Weber’s Der Freischutz, the first piece of the evening’s program, board member Simeon B. Chittenden took the stage and delivered a speech on the history of the BAM enterprise, its intended purposes, and its future. Voicing the viewpoint of the majority of BAM’s founders, Chittenden proclaimed “that no one of us purposed to build a theater, nor do we propose to allow this building to be used for theatrical purposes.”

Essayist Phillip Lopate purports that Chittenden’s point of view was common among New York’s and Brooklyn’s elite, whose views of theater were tainted with class politics after the Astor Place Riot of 1849, which was “one of the most violent incidents in the history of the theater.” What began as a rivalry between two Shakespearian actors, the American Edwin Forrest and English William Macready, ended in a riot that was exacerbated by class tensions, in which at least 30 people were killed and 120 injured. After 1849, the entertainments of upper and lower classes were sharply divided in New York. Chittenden, along with other board members, posited that classical music and opera were the “innocent amusements” that BAM would offer, over the “base” theatrical entertainments enjoyed by the lower classes.

Astor Place Riot of 1849
Such conservative views did not only stand for theater, however. (Brooklyn, “the City of Churches,” was renowned for its puritanical morality and Victorian mores.) The first operatic production of BAM’s opening season was originally to be La traviata, though an influential group of board members and shareholders protested its performance on the grounds that Verdi’s opera was immoral in its sympathetic portrayal of the life a Parisian courtesan. A last minute substitute was found in the more conservative Il Giuramento, and the operatic season opened on January 22, with the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, in attendance.

While a small but powerful minority was appeased by this substitution, counter protests were raised almost immediately, pointing out that mainstage entertainments the following week included several demonstrations by a horse tamer named Mr. Rarey. The New York Times described one of Mr. Rarey’s performances as an illustration of his skill, “by making two vicious horses, one a biter and the other a kicker, succumb to his discipline.” His performances were immensely popular: for his second demonstration 3,218 tickets were accepted at the door for a venue with 2,250 seats. The less conservative shareholders and board members argued that if BAM is willing to present entertainment to the masses in the form of a horse tamer, it could surely present the likes of Shakespeare, whose works were, as Phillip Lopate puts it, “the object of enormous cultural enthusiasm in 19th-century America.” It was an argument with wide implications for questions of aesthetics, ethics, and class relations at this new cultural center of Brooklyn.

It took less than a year for BAM to present Hamlet, its first theatrical production; soon after, La traviata was staged. While this may have been a triumphal moment for the less conservative among BAM’s board and shareholders, the most convincing factor of the argument was economic necessity: seats needed to be sold, and theater was more popular, and therefore more lucrative, than opera. Yet theater still was not rid of its violent associations. On the evening of December 23rd, when Hamlet premiered, a number of extra policemen were assigned to patrol BAM and its immediate surroundings. The Daily Eagle mused that such provisions dampened the “exuberant anticipations” of Brooklyn’s first large scale theatrical production. The writer went on to postulate that this production of Hamlet would attract Brooklyn’s younger generation, who for BAM’s first year had largely shied away from its musical offerings. As New York’s community fractured and class divides visibly widened after the Astor Place Riot, it seems evident that 12 years later certain members of the Brooklyn community—or this anonymous Daily Eagle reporter at the least—were ready to start addressing the tensions that arose in the gap between “high” and “low” entertainment.  

Edwin Forrest
These tensions were brought to the surface in the first few years of BAM’s existence. While in its first years BAM brought to the stage many of the day's finest and most infamous actors—among them Edwin Booth, his brother John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin), and Edwin Forrest (one of the instigators of the Astor Place Riot)—BAM’s programming was still dominated by classical concerts and opera. It is hard to say whether the tensions between “high” and “low” entertainment were ever resolved at BAM. But it is clear in hindsight that as the Civil War flared, and as BAM established itself as Brooklyn's great cultural center, the following words from Simeon B. Chittenden’s opening night speech ring prophetic:
“We wanted a great place where men of all parties and creeds can meet on common ground in time of need and time of danger, to devise measures of local beneficence and philanthropy; or to lay on the altar of our country, all personal or party considerations, that we may unite together as one man to redeem the nation.”
It’s evident that Chittenden saw BAM as a space where Brooklynites come to negotiate differences of opinion in matters of politics, aesthetics, and community. His words, 150 years and one building later, still resound through the halls of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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