Yes, the opera.
The New York Times of 10 October 1880 announced a new comic opera soon to be performed in that city:
The opera of “Deseret; or, a Saint’s Difficulties,” which is to be produced at Haverly’s Fourteenth-Street Theatre to-morrow evening, is said to be an attempt to portray the comical side of Mormonism in song. Though Artemas Ward and other humorists have seen plainly the farcical as well as the tragical elements in the subject, its treatment in operatic form is something new. “Deseret” seems to have been written both by Mr. W.A. Croffut, the librettist, and Mr. Dudley Buck, the composer, more in the spirit of fun than of satire. Its production as an opera composed by Americans deserves attention, and will be undoubtedly cordially received by the numerous friends of the authors.
We’ve seen how Artemus Ward handled Mormon polygamy – and many of us thought it was hilarious. What of this opera written by successful poet William Augustus Croffut and successful musician Dudley Buck?
Well, you’ll have a chance to judge for yourself, at least as far as the text goes, because I’ll post the text of the opera (I don’t have the music, sadly) in three installments as our serial this week. But here is how Croffut remembered what happened, 30 years after the fact:
Speaking of operas stirs me all up and fills me full of melancholy reminiscence. For I once wrote the book of an opera myself – a “comic opera” it was called. What? You have never heard of Deseret, or A Saint’s Afflictions? Oh, you must have heard of it, but it passed into your forgettery.
Yes; it was presented. It was put on the stage at the Fourteenth Street Theatre, New York, with much expensive scenery and great expectations. To bring it out the first night cost four thousand dollars. It had a run of a fortnight in New York, and was sung a week in Brooklyn and also in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit.
Then and there its performance was suddenly “suspended.” that is what Hart Jackson, the manager, called it, and I feebly acquiesced. The unfeeling boys of the dramatic press amused themselves by remarking that it was “busted,” “petered out,” “gone up” – it makes my blood curdle to recall their brutal language. It seemed to be going along very successfully when it suddenly stopped.
Why it suspended – that is what racked my sconce. Why was there not a public clamor for Deseret, as the friends of the author and the composer had predicted? Why? it was quiet and refined, moral and chaste, and could have been given in any boarding school for girls. it was strictly and even painfully American – and an American opera was what there had been such a clamor for. Mormonism was the droll theme it played with – for the first time, I believe. It was well put on the stage and admirably sung. Elder Scram had some thirty or forty wives, – thirty-five, I think, to be exact – and they made it lively for their husband. Why did the opera fail? it was composed by the most gifted and eminent American musician, Dudley Buck, and the libretto was written by another ditto ditto, whose name modesty forbids me to mention. yet it had a brief existence – a few weeks only – and then the demand for it ceased.
I never understood its premature doom. I saw the howling idiocies of Rice’s “Surprise Party,” “The Rag Baby,” “The Painted Dog,” and “The Tin Soldier” received with universal acclaim. Women shouted for them. Children cried for them. Bald men hired opera glasses and sat in front, yet Deseret, which was coherent, intelligible, and respectable, came to grief in one short lustrum – no, I don’t mean lustrum; I mean lunation – month, you know, or a little over. My brain still reels when I think of the wreck. the score was by a composer of the highest reputation, and was spirited, tender, humorous, virtuous. The libretto was as good as the music, if not better. It displayed high dramatic skill and literary talent. I know what I ma talking about, for I wrote it myself. it was everything it should have been, and perhaps more. I cannot permit the question to be discussed.
And the manager was an able manager. I know he was, for he told me so himself. How came Deseret to fail to captivate the American public, then? I lay it to the profound stupidity of the human race. It was too intellectual for theatregoers of that time. Like Wordsworth’s poetry and Bacon’s philosophy, it was written for the future, and the question how soon it will rise from its premature slumber and go forth to conquer depends on how soon the world becomes enlightened and acquires the love for the beautiful.
And here is how the New York Times reviewed it at the time:
The composition of an American opera by two Americans should be a welcome event, and it was to be fondly hoped that Mr. Croffut, as the author of the text, and Mr. Dudley buck, as the composer of the music, of “Deseret,” would not only add to their own professional reputations, but would give us something creditable. it is therefore all the more distressing to be obliged to announce that this latest addition to ‘comic opera”is not entitled to consideration, either by those who wish to enjoy a theatrical entertainment without being disgusted by vulgarity, or by the musically inclined public, who expect to hear some good music from the pen of Mr. Dudley Buck. The subject of the opera is necessarily unclean. There is nothing picturesque about polygamy as practiced in Utah. It is a disgraceful blot on our civilization, “without a touch of poetry in it,” and therein is essentially disagreeable when presented in the realistic form which the authors of “Deseret” have adopted.
On the stage, as in “Fatinitza,” for instance, the Turkish harem is made attractive by pretty costumes and a certain flavor of romance which attaches to the unknown. But about Mormonism there is a repulsive nastiness, which the efforts of several professional humorists have not succeeded in making amusing. The victims of this wretched system are not attractive subjects for comedy, and the action in this opera certainly does not rob the subject of any of its inherent coarseness. It should be said distinctly that the work, dramatically considered, is clumsy, the dialogue flat and vapid, and the language and action in certain parts, notably in the third act, quite unfit for eyes and ears polite. As to the music, Mr. Buck it is well known is a competent writer, but of the ponderous form. It is evident from listening to “Deseret” that he has been inspired by the success of Sullivan to write a comic opera. When he attempts to be light and sparkling in his score he is plagiaristic, and his music, though well enough written, shows no invention. His best professional work is suggestive of the cathedral, and seems out of place in this so-called comic opera. Mr. Dudley Buck as the composer of a comic opera occupies a position analogous to the well-known bull in a china shop – he is in the wrong place. No one doubts Mr. ?Buck’s real abilities as a musician, but it is quite evident that he has been unfortunate in the subject and the libretto of his opera, and that his musical abilities have been wasted. A good American comic opera is to come in the future.
Personally, I don’t think it has nearly as much charm as Artemus Ward’s work, but neither do I think it deserved the censure of the Times’ critic. The opera is silly, but funny, with some clever wording – and because it’s silly it’s hard to believe that anyone took it seriously or that it did any harm to Mormon reputations. If this were all that was said and done during 1880’s Mormon Moment, the ridicule would have been easy to take. The contempt expressed by the Times, however, was the bitterness and scorn and misplaced moralizing that did cause harm.
I’ll be interested in hearing your reaction to Deseret … which was discovered and brought to my attention last Friday by Paul Reeve. Thanks, Paul!