June 28, 1919
Page 3

Veteran Impresario Who Made “Dollar Opera in English” Famous Recalls pioneer Days for “MusicalAmerica” in Commemoration of His Thirty-fifth Anniversary inthe Operatic Field—Stage-Struck Drummer Who Wanted to Become Singer Established Chain of Opera Companies—Championed High Artistic Standards and Fought for the Use of English—”Discovered” Eminent Artists—How Opera Created Native Vaudeville—To Erect Great “Musical Building” in New York

DOLLAR opera is dead but Milton Aborn, creator of Abornized Verdi,Mascagni, Wagner, et al., is still with us after thirty-five exciting years in the American operatic arena.
The sad reasons for the passing of the Age of Dollar-Opera-in-English will be explained in the proper place; in the meanwhile let us examine the thirty-five year record of the California drummer whose yearnings to follow in the Mefistophelean footsteps of Edouard de Reszke created a new era of American opera.
Quite accidentally we learned last week from Dr. Frank Nagel that Milton Aborn had just reached his thirty-fifth anniversary. So we coralled the man of the snowy-white Mont Blanc hair in the antechamber of the Aborn Miniature Theater, which is located a hundred paces from the majestic Broadway temple ·of art. (Yes, you have guessed it, the Metropolitan.) A Michaela was going through her paces on the stage to the accompaniment of a very animated ten-fingered orchestra. Milton the First of Dollar-Opera-in-English docilely conducted us to headquarters, seated us amid stacks of morocco-bound “Fausts,”“Carmens,” “Cavallerias,” Wagner scores (Newman and Corder translations), closed the door on Bizet’s grieving ingenue, and bid us fire away.
If we were a lady interviewer we would devote a whole paragraph to the luster of the argent mane, another paragraph to the esthetic mold of our subject’s features, the solemn mien—the mask of nature’s own humorists—but we are not and we won’t.
“You have developed many an artist, Mr. Aborn?”
Launched Many Notables
“Perhaps next year we’ll hold a reunion. There’s Mabel Garrison, Lila Robeson, Thomas Chalmers, Elsie Janis, Marguerite Clark, Marie Dressler, to mention a few names at random from the musical and theatrical fields. We ought to have a pleasant reunion, these young people whom I had the honor of launching on their careers, and myself. You want me to begin at the very beginning?”
“I was born in California fifty-five years ago, in Marysville. But as I have never been to California since I don’t suppose I am a Californian in the full sense of the word. My father went West during the gold rush but later on our folks settled down in the East. If I have any humor in me at all I inherited it from my father. He was a gifted singer as well as a ‘comedian’ in the fine sense of the word, and he saw to it that all of his youngsters studied piano and singing.
The Romance of "Drumming”
“From the beginning, I had the urge to do something out of the ordinary. At that time it was the highest ambition of most boys to follow the fascinating travelling life of the commercial drummer. But selling ordinary merchandise seemed too prosaic for my romantic imagination, so I looked around for a more stimulating commodity. I finally decided on spool-cotton, the product of the snowy-white blossoms of the South. As a result of this decision I married a girl from the Cotton State of Mississippi—but I am ahead of my story.
“My career as a drummer began when I was sixteen, a big, strapping lad who looked several years older. The excitement of other cities (our home was in Boston), and, above all, those hours of story-telling provided an entertaining and valuable three years’ experience. Every drummer had to be a good joke-teller, and as I had a strong predilection for such pleasantry I acquired a certain technique in the art. When I found that my efforts were more than unusually successful, as I thought, I longed and sighed for the opportunity of publicly displaying this training.
“Selling spool-cotton lost its charm. I thought of nothing but the stage, I dreamt of nothing but the stage: Everywhere I watched for an opening, but no manager seemed to have any sympathy with my ambitions. Then I decided I would have to capture a place in the theater by storm. I assembled a company in Boston, rehearsed them, and after a couple of weeks’ rehearsal produced Audran’s “Mascot” in. a hall on Boylston Street. This was on Feb. 3, 1884, when I was nineteen years old. This performance had the desired effect, for soon afterward I was engaged for a “Pinafore” production as Sir Joseph Porter. We played in the Windsor Theater, located at Dover and Washington Streets. Then I was made principal comedian and stage manager of the company at a salary of $15 a week. During this period my ambition to sing in grand opera was never quenched so I applied myself assiduously to Mefisto in Gounod’s ’Faust.’ However, when I heard myself sing the rôle I became scared at the sound of my own voice and resolved to keep to the lighter side of opera. My first engagement came to a sudden end several weeks later, when we were stranded at Brockton, Mass.
When Opera Chastened “Variety”
“At this time the form of entertainment known as ’variety’ was in a precarious state from a genteel standpoint. E. F. Albee, who conceived the idea of elevating the standard of the ‘variety,’ had a pianist, Earle Bishop, in his Boston theater. Mr. Albee had the idea that opera would lend dignity to the performances and therefore attract the better kind of audiences. Mr. Bishop, who was the pianist who played when I made my début, recommended me to Mr. Albee as a· likely man to produce opera, and later, after being examined by Mr. Albee, I was engaged at the princely salary of $35 a week. I was immediately shipped to the Gaiety Theater at Providence. On the site of this little building, by the way, Mr. Albee has only recently completed his million dollar theater. I was supposed to give three performances a day, but on the very first day of my engagement we had to give five performances of ‘The Mascot’ in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
“In all I was with Keith for nine years, from ‘84 to ‘92. I played Ko-ko in the ‘Mikado’ and leading rôles in the fifty or sixty other light operas we produced during this period. Those were the days of whirlwind performances. On holidays we would give a Gilbert and Sullivan work or other pieces from our wide répertoire seven times. Many a time Mr. Albee would stand in the wings and signal us to cut the act short, then we would ring down the curtain, wait till the next audience filled the seats and begin all over!”
This ends the first two cycles of Milton A born's career: the drummer period and the period of the “variety”-operatic combination. In ‘92 variety was transformed into vaudeville, thanks to the vision of Messrs. Keith and Albee and the purifying reagent, Aborn opera. When the great rage for sublimated variety reached its ascendancy in ‘92 operetta was eliminated and Milton Aborn concluded his pleasant and enduring relations with the vaudeville pioneers.
Mr. Aborn journeyed to Denver to appear in Elitch’s Garden in this same year. From Colorado he made the long journey to Hazlehurst, Miss., this time on a non-professional mission. In Hazlehurst he claimed as his bride the lass he had met on his spool-cotton tours, nine years before. In the same eventful year Mr. Aborn took into business association his younger brother, Sargent.
His Chain of Companies
In the meanwhile vaudeville managers in various sections had taken up the opera idea. Believing the time ripe for a more systematic development of the operatic field, Mr. Aborn and his brother formed opera stock companies in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Washington, Baltimore and Toronto for summer and spring productions. As far as the writer is informed this chain of companies, which finally grew into eight organizations, utilizing some 600 persons, was the first attempt to present opera on a country-wide plan.
Music In Its Infancy Here
“Then, as now,” observed Mr; Aborn, “there was a great lack of system in managerial methods. The more I go into the problem the more fully I am convinced that music, speaking of both the executive and artistic sides, is in its infancy. The new National Concert Managers’ Association and the National Music Managers’ Association should do considerable to alleviate conditions. I believe the day is coming when the artist will take a deeper interest and appreciate that he will reap a greater artistic reward if he will co-operate sympathetically with the manager. By this I mean that the artist should be willing to appear on a co-operative basis, sharing profits after he receives a certain specified minimum sum. This plan, I believe, is thoroughly democratic and would help to solve many serious problems of the executive side of music. If the artist would help in this way the managers will be enabled to establish concert circuits and thus open up a great deal of new musical territory. At present the artist is the chief sufferer. I know the long tragic lives of weary artists crowding the managers’ offices. These artists must and will be helped. Systematic managerial methods will do it.
It is surprising to learn how many of the medium-sized communities are neglected musically, not because they are unmusical—in my experience the ‘unmusical community’ is a myth—but only because of the lack of proper development. Within a few years we should see great changes in music—chains of opera companies, concert circuits, a great national clearing house for the musical interests outdoor opera and many other things.”
The prophet again became narrator.
“Our spring and summer season was successful in the various cities, but again I began to feel old Mefisto stirring within me. Gradually the musical palate of the country was becoming more sensitive and more discriminating; our national crudeness was wearing off. At any rate, I was of this opinion and decided that the time had arrived to carry out my life-long ambition, the giving of grand opera in English at prices that would make opera truly an institution of the people.
“In December, 1910, we opened our engagement at the Grand Opera House in Brooklyn. We presented the standard works, ‘Aida,’ ‘Faust,’ ‘Lohengrin,’ ‘Trovatore,’ ‘Cavalleria’ and ‘Pagliacci,’ in English, of course. It had always seemed to me a matter of common sense that we should hear opera in the vernacular, like every other country, but I must confess that the result of our first week’s engagement in Brooklyn proved a great surprise.
“The size of the audiences overwhelmed us. For matinées, the best seats were offered for twenty-five cents; in the evening our scale ranged from this sum up to $1. Again we found that our public was ready for a more advanced type of music, so we added to our repertory such works as ‘Tosca,’ ‘Bohème,’ ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Thaïs.’”
Fathers Municipal Opera
It was at this time that Mr. Aborn appealed to the Mayor of New York, the late William Gaynor for a site in some park, preferably Central Park. Mr. Aborn offered to enter into an agreement with the municipality, whereby he would erect a suitable building on the city’s site and give opera in English at very nominal rates. The Mayor was rather sympathetic to the unique proposition, but the idea was violently assailed in other quarters. The New York Times was conspicuously aggressive, viewing open-air opera as a “desecration” of the people’s park. So the project died in New York, but several other cities with broader artistic vision, notably Baltimore, Denver and St. Louis, have adopted the Aborn idea in some form, as we shall discuss in future articles.
His Boston Re-Entry
A year after the Aborns’ epic beginning in Brooklyn, Mr. Aborn bethought himself of the city he had earlier claimed as home, Boston. When he suggested to Henry Russell, who was then concluding his notable season at the Opera House that dollar opera could be given successfully by the Aborn forces at the conclusion of the Russell season, Mr. Russell smiled. “No, he laughed,” continued Mr. Aborn, “but we entered the Opera House on April 11, 1910, the Monday following the Saturday conclusion of Mr. Russell's season. ‘Aida,’ in English, of course, was our opening opera, with Estelle Wentworth, Mary Jordan and Joe Sheehan in the cast. Mr. Russell was astounded at our success, which continued unabated for five weeks.
The Conquering of the Metropolis
“We had proved that dollar opera was wanted in Brooklyn and even in Boston, notoriously antagonistic to opera. The great metropolis remained to be conquered. I looked around New York for a suitable house and found that the Century Theater was available.” To review briefly this comparatively recent event, the Century Theater board of directors, through Otto H. Kahn, the chairman arranged a three-year engagement for the Aborn company. The initial season of thirty-one weeks attracted large audiences and incidentally aroused the cupidity of New York’s unbridled parasites, the ticket “brokers.” These speculators secured great blocks of tickets and thus prevented thousands of persons of modest means from securing the benefit of the reasonable prices. Mr. Kahn tried to circumvent the designs of the ticket gamblers by adding 1,000 · additional seats, but, as it proved later, this strategy did not relieve the situation. When the Great War began, the Century Company was about to embark on its second season. Suddenly the Board of Directors determined to send the company to Chicago.
“But Chicago, with its Campanini company, didn’t want us” went on Mr. A born, “so we had to face a heavy deficit. · Of the $300,000 pledged, only $100,000 was paid, Mr. Kahn shouldering the bulk of this sum alone, as all of his colleagues did not fulfil their obligations. Thus ended the Century Opera Company.”
Since that time Mr. Aborn has been devoting himself to his annual opera in New York and his school.
His Novel School
“The great defect of opera has been the acting,” he explained. “Many a time you will witness a duet with lovers forty feet apart, or some other equally ludicrous situation. I have found hundreds of remarkably fine voices in this country, but I have met very few singers who were qualified to act their rôles. This is a natural situation—where could young singers secure routine in this country? Therefore, we founded our Operatic Classes.”
The classes began in one room several years ago, and after several successive removals to larger quarters are now housed in the splendid Miniature Theater. Later, the school will be accommodated in a still larger building.
“Opera in this country is still manacled to provincial operatic traditions,” he continued. “Most of the older works were prepared for production in small provincial theaters, but we cling to the original staging and technical details of production as if we were following Holy Writ. An artist like Joseph Urban is doing a great deal in the Metropolitan and elsewhere to remedy this failing.”
We had been chatting for more than two hours. Yet we have only sketched Milton Aborn’s thirty-five year record; the illustrious names associated with his career and a chronicle of all the events crowded into this period would fill a bulky volume. To summarize, on the threshold on his new operatic epoch Mr. Aborn has the satisfaction of seeing three more of his singers inducted into the Metropolitan: Gladys Axman, Margaret Farnum and Jeanne Gordon. Lila Robeson, Vera Curtis, Louis d’Angelo, Kathleen Howard, were also under the Aborn wing not so long ago. Mabel Garrison made her début as an Aborn singer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as Filina in “Mignon.” He found Morgan Kingston in London, fresh from the Welsh coal mines, and engaged him for “Aida” at the Century. There are many other familiar names, but we must keep strictly in the province of grand opera.
“It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to look over the opera field now and compare the conditions with those of thirty-five years ago. Consider the coming season. Fortune Gallo (there is an opera manager who is on the right track!) will have two companies on the road; William Wade Hinshaw, who has been doing such a great service for American opera at the Park Theater, will be in the field again; Dippel announces his season; Creatore will continue, I believe; Hammerstein, the valiant champion of American opera, promises his return all in addition to the Metropolitan and the Chicago companies.
“As for myself, I expect to have about three companies in the field. No, not dollar opera. Like everything else, the cost of opera production has advanced enormously, 200 per cent., to be exact. In the old days our choristers received from $12 to $15; nowadays they get $35. Then our musicians earned $3 a performance; now they ask $7.50. We used to be able to travel with a small company; to-day we are required to carry additional persons for specific duties, otherwise we would hear from our union friends. Dollar opera is no more, it is two-dollar-fifty opera now.”
And Now for His Future
We are permitted, in commemoration of Mr. Aborn’s anniversary, to divulge that our veteran is the originator of the “musical building” described in these columns two weeks ago. Two large structures will be erected, one containing an auditorium with a capacity of 4,000, and the· other building with a smaller concert hall seating 1,200, and an opera house seating 1,800. The latter building will also include forty studios and offices for the use of managers and other musical interests. This glorified musical center of the nation Mr. Aborn hopes to see a reality within a few years. Then we shall have the fitting memorial to Milton Aborn, father of Dollar Opera in English-now Two-Fifty.


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