Friday, April 8, 2011

A Wagner Matinée

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

In 1897 Willa Cather heard her first opera by Richard Wagner when she attended a performance of Lohengrin in Pittsburgh; she had moved there the previous year to take a job as a magazine editor. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the music of Wagner—in spite of the fact the performance was apparently abysmal. All the singers had severe colds (and not much talent) and the actor playing a lead, according to Cather biographer James Woodress, “had to stop in the middle of an aria for a coughing seizure.”

Cather’s fondness for opera would inspire several of her works of fiction, but “A Wagner Matinée” got her in a bit of trouble with the folks back home when it was first published in 1904. A local editor criticized her portrayal of prairie life: “If writers of fiction who use western Nebraska as material would look up now and then and not keep their eyes in the cattle yards, they might be more agreeable company.”

But even more upsetting to family and friends was their belief that Cather had based the character of Aunt Georgiana on her Aunt Franc, who lived in Boston and had studied music before marrying George Cather and moving to Nebraska. “Cather wrote a friend that the whole affair had been the nearest she ever had come to personal disgrace,” writes Woodress. “That she could not have intended cruelty to her aunt is perfectly clear from the warm affectionate tone of all her letters to Aunt Franc.” Nevertheless, when Cather revised and shortened the story for her 1920 collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa, she altered the portrait of Georgiana out of consideration for her Nebraskan family.

Notes: Franz-Joseph-Land (p. 490) is an archipelago located north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean. “Joyous Farmer” (p. 491), or “The Happy Farmer”, is one of forty-three short piano works in Album for the Young, composed for beginners by Robert Schumann. Euryanthe (p. 491) is an opera by German composer Carl Maria von Weber. Les Huguenots (p. 491) is an opera by French composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Since 1876 Bayreuth (p. 494) has been the site of an annual Wagner festival featuring Richard Wagner’s music. Trovatore, (p. 495), refers to Il trovatore, or “The Troubadour,” an opera by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

*   *   *
I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined note-paper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village. This communication, worn and rubbed, looking as if it had been carried for some days in a coat pocket that was none too clean, was from my uncle Howard, and informed me that his wife had been left a small legacy by a bachelor relative, and that it would be necessary for her to go to Boston to attend to the settling of the estate. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.