"Major Jones at the Opera" by William Tappan Thomas (1845)

Filladelfy, May 25, 1845. To MR. Thompson:-Dear Sir-

I told you in my last letter that I was gwine to the opery, and that I'd tell you what I thought of 'em. Well, to tell you the truth, I like the opery well enuff, all but the singin. The scenery is very handsum, the actin is good, and the fiddlin is fust rate; but so much singin spiles evry thing. The opery what I went to see at the Chesnut street theatre, was the Bohemian Gall, and the acters was the celebrated Segwin Troop, as they call 'em, and I spose they done it up as well as anybody else could do it; but accordin to my notion, there's monstrous little sense in any such carryins on. If operys didn't cum from Paris, whar all the fashionable bonnets and evry thing else comes from, and it wasn't considered unfashionable not to admire 'em, I don't blieve ther's many peeple in this country what would be willin to pay a half a dollar a night to hear sich a everlastin caterwaulin as they do make.

As soon as I got my tea, I went to the theatre, what ain't a grate ways from my hotel, and after buyin a ticket of a man in a little hole outside of the green dores, I went in and tuck a seat on one of the cushioned benches what they call boxes. Ther was a good many peeple in the theatre and ever so many wimmin, all dressed out as fine as they could be, and sum of 'em lookin monstrous handsum.

Bimeby one of the fiddlers down in the place they call the orkestry, tuck up his fiddle-stick, and rapped on his desk, at which evry musicianer grabbed his instrument. Then the man with the fiddle-stick, after wavin it up and down three or four times, gin his fiddle a scrape or two what seemed to set the whole of 'em agwine; and sich another hurra's nest I never did hear before. Sumtimes all of 'em stopped but one or two; then they all struck up agin as hard as they could rip it. Sumtimes the musick was low and soft as the voice of a sick kitten, and then it was loud and terrible, as if all the lions, bulls, jackasses, and hiennys in creashun had got together, and was tryin to see which could make the biggest racket. They seemed to have evry thing in the world that would make a noise, from a base drum to a jewsharp; and evry feller tried to do his best. One old feller had a grate big fiddle of about one hundred boss power, and the way he did rear and pitch and pull and jerk at it, was really distressin. The old feller seemed to have the highstericks for fear he couldn't make as much noise as the rest of 'em, and he rolled his eyes and twisted his mouth about enuff to frighten all the ladys out of ther senses. Bimeby they all blowed out, and at the ring of the bell up went the curtain.

Then the opery commenced, but for the soul of me I couldn't hardly make out hed nor tail to it, though I listened at 'em with all my ears, eyes, mouth, and nose. The fust thing was a grand singin match by a whole heap of Bohemian sogers and wimmin, 'bout nobody could tell what. Then thar was a big fat feller named Thadeus, what the bill sed was a Polish exile, what had run away from his country, cum. on and sung a song 'bout his troubles, but he put so many dimmy-sinuny quivers in it that nobody couldn't understand what hurt him. 'Bout this time ther was a gang of Murrelite lookin peeple, what they called Gipseys, made ther appearance. The bed man among them was a old feller named Devil's- hooff, what had the whitest teeth I ever seed in a white man's bed. This old cus sot to robbin the fat Polander the fust thing, but his wife, who seemed to wear the trowsers, wouldn't let him; and after a little singin the Gipseys agreed to take the fat exile into ther gang, and hide him from his pursuers. Then the Gipseys went to whar the Governor of Bohemia and his peeple was, and while they was all singin and carryin on, sumbody cum. in and told them that a wild hog or sum other varmint was 'bout to eat up the Governor's baby. Then ther was a rumpus-his excellency and all his sogers run about the stage and looked at one another as much as to say, "Grate Heavens! what's to be done;" til the fat Polander tuck up a gun what was leanin agin the house, and run out and shot the varmint, whatever it was, and brung in the baby safe and sound to its mammy. Then they had another singin match. The Governor was very much obleeged to the fat man for savin his baby, and sung to him if he wouldn't take sumthing to drink. Mr. Thadeus 'lowed he didn't care if he did, and the licker was sot out; but the Governor didn't have no better sense than to propose sum political sentiment what didn't set well on the stummick of the fat Polander, who throwd down his glass and spilled the licker all over the floor. Then ther was a terrible rumpus agin. The Governor made his sogers grab the man what spilled the licker-with that, old Devil's-hooff fell to singin and rearin and shinin, tryin to git his friend out of the hands of the sogers-but they sung as loud as he did, and tuck him, too, and put him in jail with Mr. Thadeus. But while the Governor and his friends was singin about it, old Devil's-hooff got out of the jail and stole the baby what the fat Polander had saved, and run off with it. They saw him with the baby in his arms, but the sogers was afraid to shoot at him for fear of killin it; and when the old rascal got across the bridge he took out his jack-knife or sumthing else and cut it down, so they couldn't foller him. Then all fell to singin agin as hard as they could, like a barn-yard full of chickens when a hawk has jest carried off one of ther little ones. When they was about out of breth they let the curtain down for 'em to rest.

Well, thinks I, if that's what you call a opery, I'd a monstrous sight rather see a genuine old Georgia cornshuckin frollick, what ther's sum sense in.

Rite close beside me was a feller with three or four galls, what kep all the time lookin round the house at the peeple, with a kind of doublebarreled spy-glass, and gabblein and chatterin like a parsel of geese. They was all dressed within a inch of ther lives, and the chap had a red and blue morocco cap on, what sot rite tite down to his bed like a ball-cover. He had a monstrous small hed, and when he had the spy-glasses up to his eyes he looked jest like a double-barreled percussion pistol, and I had half a mind jest to tap him on the hed with my cane to see if he wouldn't go off.

"Now, ladies," ses he, "we've got to wait til that baby grows to be a woman before we see any more of the opery."

"Dear me," ses one of the galls, "I hope they won't keep us waitin so long 'tween the acts as they always do; for I'm so much delighted with the opery."

"And me, too," ses another one. "It's so refreshin to hear sich delightful melody; I shall be very impatient."

"It's exceedingly foin," ses the feller with the percussion cap, lookin round the theatre with his spy glasses. I nevaw heard Segwin in better tune. Fwazau is pwefectly delightful. But I must beg the ladies to be patient."

Thinks I, I'll be monstrous apt to be in old Georgia agin before that baby grows to be a gall; but I can set up as long as any of you, and, as I've paid my money, I'm 'termined to see it out." But I hadn't begun to git sleepy before up went the curtain agin, and the racket commenced. Shore enuff, thar was the baby grow'd to be a grate big gall, and Mr. Thadeus, as fat as ever, was thar singin love to her.

They've both been with the gipseys ever sense, and she's fell in love with the fat Polander. The queen of the gipseys agrees to the match and the raggymuffins has a grand frollick and dance on the occasion. 'Bout this time a Miss Nancy sort of a feller, what's sum relation to the Governor, comes projectin about among the gipseys, falls in love with the Bohemian gall, and wants her to have him. The gipsey queen, who seems to have sum spite agin the pore gall, steals a medal from the booby lover, and puts it on her neck; when the feller, findin he can't git her to have nothin to say to him, has her tuck up for stealin, and carried before the governor. The governor, who's had the blues like the mischief ever sense he lost his baby, is 'bout gwine to punish her, when he fmds out by some mark that she is his own daughter. Then he sings to her a heap, and she sings to him, and he takes her home to his palace, and wants her to marry his booby relation. But she's got better sense; besides, she's hard and fast in love with Mr. Thadeus, and won't have nobody else. Her father won't consent for her to marry a wanderin gipsey, and thar's the mischief to pay, with singin enuff for a dozen camp-meetins, all mixed up so nobody can't tell hed nor tail to it. 'Bout this time, Mr. Thadeus shows the governor his last tailor's bill, or sumthing else, that proves to his excellency that he was a gentleman once, and he gives his consent to the match. Mr. Thadeus and the Bohemian gall is monstrous happy, and old Devil's-hooff and the governor and all of 'em is takin another sing, when the queen of the gipseys puts up one of her vagabones to shoot Mrs. Thadeus that is to be; but the feller being a monstrous bad shot misses her and kills the queen, which puts a stop to her singin, though the rest of 'em sing away til the curtain draps.

"And that's the eend of the opery of the Bohemian Gall. I hain't got the squeelin and howlin and screechin of them 'bominable gipseys out of my hed yet, and I blieve if I was to live to be a hundred years old I wouldn't go to another opery, unless it was one that didn't have no singin in it. I like a good song as well as. anybody, and have got jest as good a ear for musick as the next man, but I hain't got no notion of hearin twenty or thirty men and wimmin all singin together, in a perfect harrycane of noisy discord, so a body can't tell whether they're singin "Hail Columbia" or "Old Hundred." Ther is sich a thing as overdoin any thing; and if you want to spile the best thing in the world, that's the surest way to do it. Well, for peeple what ain't good for much else but music, like the French, Germans, and Italians, a opery full of solos and duetts and quartetts and choruses, as they call 'em, would do very well, if they would only talk a little now and then, so a body could know what they was singin about. But to sing evry thing, so that a character can't say, "Come to supper, your excellency!" without bawlin out-"Co-ho-ho-me to-oo-oo sup-up-up-e-e-er, your-r-r ex-cel-len-cy," with about five hundred dimmy-simmy quivers, so nobody can't tell whether he was called to supper, or whether he was told that his daddy was ded, is all nonsense. Let 'em sing whar ther is any sentiment-any thing to sing about-but when ther is only a word or two that is necessary to the understandin of what comes after or goes before; and whar ther ain't words enuff to make a stave of musick, what's the use of disgusin 'em so that ther ain't neither sense nor musick in 'em.

A body what never seed a opery before would swar they was evry one either drunk or crazy as loons, if they was to see 'em in one of ther grand lung-tearin, ear-bustin blowouts. Fust one begins singin and makin all sorts of motions at another, then the other one sets in and tries to drown the noise of the fust, then two or three more takes sides with the fust one, and then sum more jines in with number two, til bimeby the whole crowd gits at it, each one trying to out-squall the other, and to make more motions than the rest. That sets the fiddlers a-goin harder and harder-the singers straiten out ther necks and open ther mouths like so many carpetbags-the fiddlers scrape away as if they was gwine to saw their fiddles in two, wakin up the ghosts of all the cats that ever was made into fiddlestrings, and makin the awfulest faces, as if it was ther own entrels they was sawin on-the clarineters and trumpeters swell and blow like bellowses, til their eyes stick out of ther beds like brass buttons on a lether trunk, and the drummer nocks away as if his salvation depended on nockin in the bed of his drum. By this time the roarin tempest of wind and sound surges and sweeps through the house like a equinoctial harrycane, risin higher and higher and gittin louder and stronger, til it almost blows the roof off the bildin, and you feel like dodgin the fallin rafters. For my part I shall have to go to singin-school a long time, and larn the keys from the pianissimo of the musketer's trumpet, up to the crashin fortissimo of a clap of thunder, before I shall have any taste for a grand opery...