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Opera Bouffe and its Stars in 19th Century America

by Stephen E. Busch

Lucille Tostee

On September 24, 1867 Tostee led a French cast in Offenbach's Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein at the French Theatre in New York. The opera bouffe craze in America was off and running. A few years later Marie Aimee created a sensation in the opera bouffe genre and was followed quickly by Emily Soldene. Other opera bouffe companies continued to appear on the American market for almost a decade before the bouffe was superseded by the Gilbert and Sullivan craze.

The newspaper publicity surrounding Tostee rarely mentioned her first name. This was common practice at the time. She must have been about 21 when she left her starring roles in Offenbach's opera bouffe in Paris in the 1860s and headed for America. Her opening performance at the French Theatre received an expansive review:

'Mlle. Tostee, who gave vitality to the role of the Grand Duchess, has a good voice, quite clear, eminently pleasant, and altogether strong enough for the French Theatre where the acoustics are superior. Her petite figure contains a deal of what it would be expressive (if not elegant) to call devilment, and within her demure eye there lurks the spirit of Thalia in her wildest mood. Her success with the audience was complete after her opening aria... and in the eloquent melody of the finale."

Lucille TosteeTostee's American manager, H. L. Bateman, had intended for her to star continually at the French Theatre in Offenbach shows, but a theatrical note in the Times of Nov. 7, 1867 stated that "the original cast of The Grand Duchesse has been resumed at the French Theatre, and Mlle. Tostee, who was compelled to retire for a few evenings on account of illness, has returned to her elevated and entirely humorous role."

In June, 1868 a review of the first season of opera bouffe [September 1867 - June 1868] by Batemans "excellent troupe" included the statement: "Mlle. Tostee was sometimes sick, but Mr. Bateman always had another artiste to fill her place…" Bateman produced a benefit performance for Tostee on June 25 at New York's Academy of Music where her performance "was a success beyond the expectations of her friends…. There has been nothing like it before."  Then:

"Mlle. Tostee takes her farewell of us for a brief period only….  She will resume her position early in the Fall. She is an artiste that we can hardly hope to see surpassed…. She is full of the particular kind of vivacity which is required in the performance of opera bouffe…. The lady suffered greatly from the climate on her arrival in America and had to submit to a severe operation in order to resume her professional duties…. Her voice has steadily and greatly improved."

She returned to America for a September 11, 1868 performance of Offenbach's Barbe-Bleue at Niblo's Garden. In a few weeks she "traveled extensively through the country" including St. Louis. On her return to New York "she was hailed with tumultuous and long-continued burst of applause, so well directed and emphasized with bouquets that it well-nigh took the little lady off her feet."

Bateman moved to Pike's Opera House to continue with Tostee, et al., and "the troupe was never in better working order, and Tostee is simply inimitable." In a December production of Les Bavards a reviewer commented of Tostee: "A nattier adventurer has never been seen on the stage….  She sang with perfect abandon… and acted as she only can act."

Later in December she had an accident which was not described but it "disabled her for several nights…. She had a severe fall, and it is a wonder that the consequences were not more serious."

Early in 1869 Bateman began promoting the bouffe career of Marie Irma and was managing two companies simultaneously, one with Irma, the other Tostee. By early May he featured both stars in Le Mariage Aux Lanternes. But by the end of May it was announced that she would give "positively her last performance in America" at the Fifth-Avenue Theatre on May 31, a potpourri performance: Act II of The Grand Duchesse, Act II of La Belle Helene, and Act III of Barbe-Bleue. There was no review of this performance in the The New York Times. Further, this writer has not found an obituary notice in American papers of her passing, but there must have been one somewhere at some time. The indefatigable Kurt Ganzl in his Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre gives no birth nor death dates for Tostee. Much about her remains an enigma. She may have had too many physical problems to continue performing. But she certainly made her mark on the American musical stage.

Marie Aimee

Marie Aimee's short life (1852-1887) nevertheless included almost 20 years of opera bouffe on the French and American stages, 17 years as a star. She left most of the "body exposure" to the girls in the chorus while she-- singing and speaking French most of the time-- exuded a coy innocence. There were reports that she articulated every syllable clearly, pursing the lips in emphasis. In so-called suggestive dialogue one can imagine the effect on the men in her audiences. Edward B. Marks said (They All Had Glamour) that "she had the rare talent of making improprieties seem proper without sacrificing any of the audiences's interest."

Marie AimeeShe was only 18 when, under management of Maurice Grau and Carlo Chizzola, she made her American debut at the Grand Opera House in New York on December 21, 1870 with Offenbach's Barbe-Bleue. The few publications that mention this debut indicate that she was immediately popular in this country, but this writer takes a different read. The New York Times described her opening:

"A large audience, kindly disposed toward Mlle. Aimee by the abundant testimony from Europe and Brazil, as to her excellencies, witnessed the earliest appearance of that lady in this country at the Grand Opera House last evening. The untoward incidents of a first night… and the partial embarrassment of an actress in the presence of an assemblage of foreign language and tastes, suggest the postponement of a lengthened notice of the entertainment…. But we can record without delay the fact that Mlle. Aimee's performance afforded general pleasure. The new artiste is young and pretty, is gifted with a light soprano voice, in the use of which she is quite skilled, and is thoroughly versed in the display of those peculiar graces which the representative singer of Parisian opera bouffe seems to have originated without a few of their more or less successful reproduction by emulous minds." The reviewer then said that "the best points… of Barbe-Bleue… will be increased in number by a few rehearsals" though there were passages "given with much spirit and finish, and redemanded with enthusiasm." Three days later the reviewer said that the production still needed to do much rehearsing though he had a "favorable estimate of Mlle. Aimee's abilities…. We shall be glad, therefore, to listen to Mlle. Aimee in works… of which her associates are better fitted…. We cannot assign to the revival of Barbe-Bleue a place among the successful entertainments of the present opera bouffe season…. We shall at least remember it as a means of introduction to the public of a new and accomplished artist."

The following week Aimee was sick and could not perform. When she did take the stage again it was January 11, 1871 and she shared the program with three other "prima donnas": [all Mlle.] Lea Silly, Celine Montaland, and Elise Persini. Each sang one act from Les Brigands as Fiorella or Fragoletto. That was the last of Aimee's appearances in New York for many months. On February 3, 1871 a Times column related "the fate of several of the French artists who lately visited this country." Six persons were mentioned, including Tostee, but Aimee is missing from the list. Finally on October 9, 1871, almost nine and a half months after her New York debut "Mlle. Aimee's opera bouffe company opened at Lina Edwin's Theatre with Offenbach's opera of  La Perichole." This cast was better. "Mlle. Aimee was warmly welcomed, and played with even more than her usual archness and vivacity…. Piquillo was most charmingly given, and was deservedly encored…. Aimee's company is a strong one… and likely to receive a very large share of patronage."

For the rest of October, 1871 there is no mention of Aimee, either in columns or in advertisements. Nor has this writer found evidence of her touring. Was she ill again? In any event, one does not get the impression that she immediately "took the country by storm."

In early November, 1871 and early January, 1872 she sang at some of the Sunday evening programs of Col. James Fisk, Jr.' Ninth Regimental Band, Carl Bergmann conducting.

In spring, 1872 Aimee began touring throughout the country and in Canada, Cuba and Mexico. Ganzl claims that her company made $l07,000 in eight weeks in Havana. Aimee and company performed all Offenbach operas in Denver Theatre for three nights and a matinee beginning June 20, 1872. A reviewer for the Denver Daily Times rhapsodized:

"Mademoiselle never looked better, dressed better, sang better or acted better in her life than she did as La Perichole last night. She was repeatedly encored and applauded during the scenes, and at the drop of curtain on each act she was called out to receive the plaudits of a crowded house…. Whether she paints her eyes or cheeks, or even the tip of her nose, she cannot disguise her real beauty. She will still be the rival of Tostee, the superior of Irma, and the Queen of Offenbach's opera bouffe wherever she goes."

As she toured during the 1876-1887 period, Aimee played New York almost every year where she was increasingly popular. In an 1876 performance of Girofle-Girofla at the Lyceum in New York a New York Times reviewer said that "her delivery was nicely suggestive of things often too indelicate to be even hinted at, were not the hint conveyed with a semi-unconscious air and a lightness of touch in which, in this country at least, the songstress has no rival." Her usual French delivery in dialogue and song had occasional English interjections which the audiences loved.

In her last few years in America, Aimee began to interpolate the song "Pretty as a Picture" into her shows. With words by George Cooper and music by Brigham Bishop, the song became an expected part of her performances, regardless of the show. By the early 1880s opera bouffe was losing its appeal before the American public. Consequently a piece called Mam'zelle was written expressly for Aimee by George Jessup and William Gill. M. B. Leavitt, author of Fifty Years in Theatrical Management, states that "although it met with no great measure of approbation in New York, it achieved large success in other cities." She was appearing in San Francisco for the fourth time, now under management of M. B. Leavitt who has stated that it was in his theatre there "where Mlle. Aimee was taken ill, and obliged to return to her home in Paris where she died October 2, 1887."  She was only 35 years of age.

Her New York Times obituary stated that "the influence of her name was enough to attract crowds wherever she was to be seen…. In 1873, 1874, and 1875 her vogue was greatest. She then had no rivals…. She was the idol, so far as opera bouffe was concerned…. In Perichole she never had an equal…. In Mam'zelle her singing voice had most disappeared, but her spirits never faded."

Emily Soldene

When Emily Soldene (1840-1912) first appeared in America in 1874 she was 34 years old, had her own company, the Soldene English Opera Bouffe Company, and had years of stage experience. Tostee was long absent from America and Aimee had finally established her career as an opera bouffe star and was touring the country and Canada. Both Soldene and Aimee were originally managed by Maurice Grau and Carlo Chizzola. The two artistes once shared a huge "grand ball" in New York that was arranged by Grau and Chizzola to show their appreciation of the great success that both ladies were enjoying.

Emily SoldleneSoldene brought the first English opera bouffe company to America. An announcement in the Times a few days prior to her New York opening with Genevieve di Brabant stated:

"In inaugurating this new form of entertainment in America the management asks attention to the fact that it combines the sparkle of French wit and music with the elegance of opera comique and the inoffensiveness of the choicest English burletta." [Burletta is not found in many contemporary dictionaries. Webster's 1925 edition: "a facetious or farcical play set to music."]

Other publicity prior to opening said "these performers have been very successful in England, and their entertainments generally are referred to as remarkable for lyric and dramatic excellence, vivacity and completeness. Miss Soldene and her associates have performed Genevieve di Brabant upward of 300 consecutive nights in London."

The review of the November 2, 1874 opening was extensive and enthusiastic:

"So vivacious, bright, and inoffensive an entertainment is rarely offered. It is opera bouffe capitally sung, briskly acted, and freed from all its coarsness and… by means of rich scenery and gorgeous dresses, the charm of spectacle. The applause which accompanied yesterday's recital showed that all these excellences were recognized…. The nastiness of the French dialogue can be easily spared…. It is pleasant to reflect that nobody need abstain from hearing Offenbach's jolly music on the ground of morality."

Of Soldene: "Her voice is round and powerful, her execution skilled and tasteful, and she is a handsome woman, an actress of intelligence and experience." Soldene's interpolations were described as well as those of other cast members, and "the duet of the men–at-arms was sung six or seven  times." Curtain time was 8 p.m. It must have been a long evening.

In her autobiography, My Theatrical and Musical Recollections (1897), Emily claimed that after her New York opening "soon everything 'Soldene' was the range: 'Soldene' shoes, 'Soldene' stockings, 'Soldene' hats, 'Soldene' gloves, etc." She also described her cast selection:

"From the first moment of going into management-- recognizing the attractive force of female beauty-- I surrounded myself with the best-looking and best set-up girls that could possibly be found. I selected my chorus from the ballet. The result, a minimum of voice, perhaps, but certainly a maximum of good looks and grace. Nobody ever saw my chorus still, immovable, wooden. No, they felt music, were full of life, and, like a blooded horse, were anxious for a start."

Her American tours included stops in Colorado during May 16 - June 4, 1881, performing in Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs, Leadville and Central City. Now she called her group the Soldene Comic Opera Company. The Denver Daily News reported: "The favor with which the Soldene company were received seems to increase with every new piece in their repertoire. Seldom has a more enthusiastic audience greeted with such appreciative taste the efforts of any opera company than that which expressed its approbation on Tuesday evening last of the fun and folly of the laughter-evoking Billie Taylor. Last night Chilperic was presented showing that the versatile genius of the members of the company have been by no means overestimated or overpraised."

By 1881 the opera bouffe craze had subsided and Soldene and other bouffe companies were adjusting to the changing public interests, hence the "comic opera" title. In 1885-1886 she must have been back in England again, but in August, 1887 the Times noted that Soldene "is with us once again. This trip is to carry her into the vaudevilles. It is a managerial experiment as to whose outcome even grayheads are in doubt." Her manager now was Col. McCaull, but her efforts in variety theatre were not successful.

Emily next turned to scripting a play, Jeanne Fortier, the Bread Carrier, that was adapted from a French melodrama. It had its premier at Niblo's Garden on June 10, 1889. The New York Times carried an extensive review and found it "somewhat clumsy in its construction. But the interest is maintained to the end." Soldene had a small part.

In 1892 she gave up the stage and went to Australia where she wrote for newspapers, then moved back to England where she enjoyed a quiet but busy retirement, wrote a novel, Young Mrs. Staples, published in 1896 and thoroughly enjoyed a benefit for her at London's Palace Theatre in 1906. She continued in good health but died of a heart attack at her home in Upper Woburn-place on April 8, 1912. Obituary notices were carried in the London Times and The New York Times and numerous other American papers. They spoke to her acclaimed career which was "over thirty years ago."

Opera Bouffe Remembered

Alice OatesThe leading ladies of opera bouffe tended to be of "well-rounded proportions, typical of the day." Tostee apparently avoided such a description, but Aimee and Soldene fit the quotation. Another bouffe artiste, Alice Oates, became unusually large, her steady gain of weight noted by some reviewers year by year. Edward B. Marks, in They All Had Glamour (1944), did not spare Soldene:

"Emily's unusual size included her features. A Chicago critic said her mouth was so big it would take two men to kiss her, while another, much less gallant, said there were three mouths in America: the Missouri's, the Mississippi's and Missoldene's. He also intimated that Emily should never eat blueberry pie near a railroad track or the engineer might mistake it for a tunnel. Soldene was so often teased about her most prominent facial feature that she begged the editor of the Spirit of the Times not to dwell so often upon it, since there were 'so many other good features in my entertainment.'"

All opera bouffe groups had a bevy of girls for chorus and dancing, and with a minimum of dress/costume they were meant to titillate the men. This practice had started in Paris. American audiences had their first exposure to full length female legs in tights when The Black Crook premiered at Niblo's Garden, New York, on September 12, 1866. a year before Tostee's arrival. M. B. Leavitt was at the premier and described its effect on our culture:

"This was more than an event; it was an epoch. It was really the birth of all the ballets, burlesques, comic operas and musical comedy of the present day. It was the first time in which the feminine form divine had been displayed in all its fullness and beauty, or (in plain vernacular) it was the initial big "leg show," the first large spectacle in which womankind was made the central feature. What a storm it raised! The clergy were unanimous in denouncing it; the press was divided in sentiment; but the majority of the innumerable editorials that referred to it, denounced it. The public, however, rendered its own verdict by crowding the enormous auditorium of Niblo's Garden at every performance. The ballet was launched then, and ever since it and its allies (spectacles and burlesques, comic opera and musical comedy) have been safely riding upon the high seas of public favor and prosperity."

Dialogue in opera bouffe was risqué; some people considered it vulgar. So the text and the girls' costumes, or lack thereof, were the critical factors in opera bouffe. Everyone liked the music. Doris Rachel Cooper's doctoral study, Opera in Montreal and Toronto: A Study of Performance Tradition and Repertoire, 1783-1980, includes these published comments:

"Mlle. Aimee acted and sang in an inimitable manner; her gestures might have been objected to as being even too suggestive. We cheerfully admit the merit of the Aimee Opera Company, but consider it doubtful whether a familiarity with French Opera Bouffe does not tend to lower the standard of public taste. The dialogue, even in French, is often objectionable…. It can scarcely be wished that a taste for this class of entertainment should be cultivated."

This criticism was in response to performances in October, 1874 in Toronto that included Lecocq's La Fille de Madame Angot and Offenbach's La Belle Helene. In May, 1875 Emily Soldene and  company gave works by Herve and Offenbach but preceded the performances by advertising that the dialogues were edited to be more publicly acceptable.  Just prior to the May 17-22 run The Nation  stated:

"We understand that this troupe claim to have succeeded in deodorizing French opera bouffe, and in making it presentable to an English audience. If so, they certainly deserve congratulations for having performed a feat of no slight difficulty."

Edward B. Marks has provided a good summary:

"Just as The Black Crook had started the 'public exposure of the female anatomy,' the exposure became permanent with the 1874 premiere of Evangeline, the long-popular musical extravaganza, the story adapted by Edward E. Rice and Cheever Goodwin. The show, with original music by Rice, ran for years surviving on humor and 'the perennial limbs of the girls.' The humor had none of the original opera bouffe 'vulgarities and innuendoes,' but Mr. Goodwin actually labored to weed the garden of burletta and extravaganza of vulgarity and all other objectionable features. French opera bouffe, in spite of Jacques Offenbach, never won the respect and support of the more staid members of society…. Goodwin finally combined the various trends of burlesque, opera bouffe and extravaganza in one pot, strained them through the sieve of Boston's conscience and poured them out as our domestic brand of innocuous musical comedy."

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