Inspirazione! : Lessons of the Gold Rush Singers

Inspiration comes in many forms, and I am continually amazed by the ways in which the world seems to feed my creative spirit just when I need it. I’m talking about the sorts of things we all come across that help us not merely keep going, but flourish in our lives as artists. I hope this will be a place you turn to in Classical Singer when you need a lift, and I look forward to hearing from you about what inspires and sustains you on your path as a classical singer.

Now, let’s go back in time. The year: 1850. The place: San Francisco. If you think you’ve got it rough, read on.

San Francisco loves its opera, but long before Gaetano Merola founded the San Francisco Opera in 1922, singers and impresarios made their mark on a rough-and-tumble town that had exploded from a village of 500 to a bustling city of 30,000 (mostly men) within the space of two years, all because of the discovery of some shiny rock in the hills.

In his 1993 book “Verdi at the Golden Gate: Opera and San Francisco in the Gold Rush Years” (University of California Press), author George Martin tells the exciting tale of these larger-than-life musical figures. Those who are familiar with San Francisco’s operatic history know that the Met was here on tour, along with Caruso, during the earthquake of 1906 and that Luisa Tetrazzini gave an outdoor concert on Christmas Eve in 1910 to more than 150,000 people in a way that catalyzed the reconstructive spirit of the town. Maybe, if we’ve read a bit more, we know of the Tivoli Opera House, originally built in 1875 as a German beer garden. But fewer of us, I suspect, have ever heard of Rosina Pellegrini, or Eliza Biscaccianti (also known as “The American Thrush” because of her New England roots), or Catharine Hayes, “The Swan of Erin.” These were some of the first divas to brave their way (via long ocean voyages, since the city was not accessible by rail until 1869) to face audiences of miners and settlers.

The opera patrons of the time ate heartily of the peanuts and fruits sold in the aisles, whistled, yelled, stamped, and spat. They also wore pistols, occasionally brawled, threw vegetables, and, oh yes, smoked profusely.

The challenges of daily life in the city were great as well—frequent fires, duels, and, in 1856, a year of vigilante rule.

Artistically, the challenges were substantial. The companies—sometimes led by a singer or musician such as Anna Bishop and her companion/manager Nicholas Bochsa, or by an impresario, notably Thomas Maguire—often contended with less than a complete complement of musicians. In the earliest days of the 1850s, orchestras of 12 or 15 were common, women’s choruses mostly lacking, and arias often transposed to make use of whatever capable singers were at hand. This included mezzo-sopranos singing tenor roles, sometimes in the original keys and with some success, such as Georgia Hodson singing Manrico in Il trovatore. Brave, creative and industrious, these singers worked to please their audiences, performing favorite songs of the day in concert, and dropping works from the repertory that didn’t sell. They were entrepreneurs, artists and pioneers.

The life had its rewards, to be sure. Singers in those days enjoyed popularity and acclaim at a time when classical and popular music were one and the same. Look at these numbers, for instance. In 1860, a population of 60,000 bought approximately 217,000 tickets. To achieve a comparable feat today, the Metropolitan would have to build 20 additional houses and run every night of the year! Kate Hayes arrived in November of 1852—and gave 50 recitals by the time she left in May of 1853—reportedly earning $30,000. Not bad. Imagine having someone throw jewelry on the stage after an encore! But also take a moment to imagine the stage catching fire, again, from the candled footlights, or needing to wear a hat on stage to protect your face from chandeliers that have a tendency to explode and have already disfigured one of your colleagues in the theater.

What moves me most about the stories of these singers is the amazing vision they must have held, the faith in the music and themselves that allowed them not only to create music, but also to market it to the masses with enormous savvy. (How about trying a ticket auction or a torchlight parade to promote your next show?) Reading about singers’ achievements offers me cause for hope and gratitude, whether it’s singers who struggled in Europe between the wars, or my fellow singers today who are creating opportunities for themselves and continuing to grow as artists.

When I close my eyes and picture a singer, maybe singing an aria that I sing today, standing on stage, in a hat, making music above the din, I am connected to my legacy. I feel happy and proud to be a singer. And if I’m still, really still, I can almost smell the cigar smoke.

Sing your best, then let it go. And remember what mom always said: “Don’t put your light under a bushel!”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at