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Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Community Meet

Cover of Local Glories

Author: Ann Satterthwaite

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Date of Publication: Originally for October 29, 2015, postponed to Jan/Feb 2016

Date of Review: October 6, 2015

“The history of small town opera houses is an American story.” (Preface.) “By 1900, there were thousands of these small opera houses; Iowa alone had more than 1,200 opera houses.” (Chapter 1.)

Ann Satterthwaite’s “Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Community Meet” is an excellent history and biography of opera houses in rural America. As the title suggests, this book is about rural opera houses, which served purposes beyond just opera and theater. “Local Glories” is not a biography about opera. Of course, opera in America is a major component of “Local Glories,” but this book moves far beyond a history of opera.

I found the comparison of the Northern, Southern, and growing Western communities to be enlightening, particularly their differing opinions regarding theater in the 17th and 18th centuries. “The hardened opposition to the thespian activities by the Puritans, Quakers, and other strict religions in the North and middle Atlantic states contrasted to the early acceptance and flourishing of theater in the South and in the early West in that period [17th and 18th centuries].” (Chapter 1)

The expansion of theater and opera coincided with the growth of the country, especially as trains brought people out West. Opera houses were a sign that a community had ‘made it’—that Easterners could move out West and still enjoy operas and performances. Particularly after the Civil War, theatrical arts exploded with barons like Andrew Carnegie bankrolling “egalitarian” arts and cultural centers. Opera houses, being the largest gathering places in many communities, also became the staging ground for civic engagement, musical performances, folk arts, speeches, sermons, and even town hall meetings.

I am largely ignorant of the history of opera houses in the United States, and found Satterthwaite’s discussion to be thorough and compelling. She takes the reader through the birth of opera houses in America, highlights its historical struggles, and even touches on very early stars. Satterhwaite focuses heavily on rural opera houses, those found outside of major cities, though she does an excellent job of educating the reader on the relevant history of major opera houses in America, as well.

My criticisms are that “Local Glories” seems to reiterate points made in earlier chapters, and it’s not well organizes or focused. Because Satterhwaite chooses to group chapters based on subject matter (ex. “Celebrities and Stars” “Business Connections” and so forth) and not chronologically, she tends to repeat points made in prior chapters. The further I dove into the book, the more I found myself rereading information. Moreover, the book was not well organized, bouncing around locals, time periods, and subject matter.

In addition to masterfully documenting opera houses in early, rural America, Satterhwaite also includes exceptionally helpful lists of extant opera houses by state, and includes endnotes and a bibliography that would be of great benefit to anyone researching opera and opera houses in America. I highly recommend “Local Glories” if you’re interested in opera house, arts, and civics in early rural America.

Thanks NetGalley and Oxford University Press for the free Galley!