The Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXV, no. 1 (Spring 1999)

Two Parodies of French Opera Performed by Blackface Minstrels

By Renee Lapp Norris, University of Maryland College Park

During the antebellum period, blackface minstrel troupes included everything from full-length burlesques of European opera to parodies of individual arias and choruses in their shows. The texts to many of these works survive today in either songsters or sheet music. Minstrel songters, pocket-sized books containing song texts, can be particularly helpful because the titles to individual pieces often furnich information about the source of the parody. For instance, the subtitle of "Singing Darkies of Ohio," one of the pieces discussed in this article, is subtitled "Music from the opera of Postilion of Lonjeman. Arranged and sung by White's Serenaders." Comparisons of the minstrel songster texts with sheet music excerpts from the operas confirm that minstrels created their parodies to closely parallel the operatic sources. Often the verse structures of the opera texts are maintained in the minstrel parody texts, leading to the assumpton that the minstrel texts were sung to original operatic melodies.

This article compares two parodies with the original arias in the French operas Le postillon de Longumeau by Adolphe Adam and Fra Diavolo by Daniel Auber.1 For both of these pieces, the minstrel arrangers used English-language translations of the French operas as their subjects. In Opera on the Road Katherine Preston explains that the foreign-language works performed by English-language traveling opera troupes during this time were versions adapted to the English stage. The process involved not only language translation but often the addition of other music; recitative was usually adapted to spoken dialogue.2 During the 1840s and 1850s, these English-language versions of European operas were performed in the United States by stars such as Anne and Edward Seguin and other full-fledged English opera companies, and were received by large audiences comprising a wide range of social classes.3

In addition to providing comparative analyses of opera arias and their minstel parodies, this paper also considers ethnicity within the blackfaced performance of a European art tradition. It is clear that minstrelsy consistently presented stereotypes that worked against Blacks' struggles for social mobility and equality. The frequent use of so-called black dialect, conventional minstrel costuming, and the perpetuation of idas such as the "happy darkey" demonstrate that antebellum minstrelsy was racist in its very form, but these parodies suggest they were also comic representations the characters and dramatic contexts of opera. The two parodies discussed both rely upon the removal of the operatic characters from their context to that of the comic blackfaced minstrel show. This is accomplished thorugh a variety of means, including the use of stereotypical and demaning texts and the interpolation of well-known minstrel show songs into an opera parody.

Le postillon de Lonjumeau, written by Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-56), was his most successful and highly regarded opera, premiering in Paris at the Opéra-Comique on 13 October 1836, and in the United States at the Théâtre d'Orléans on 19 April 1838. Adam studied at the Paris Convervatory under Francois Adrien Boieldieu and wrote several successful operas for the Opéra-Comique. According to William Studwell's summary of Adam's life, Adam "dominated the Parisian musical scene for at least a generation," that is, the mid-1830s to the early 50s.4 This opera was not performed in the original language in New York until Julie Calvé's performance on 16 June 1843; however, it was heard many times in English, performed by the English opera stars Jane Shirreff and John Wilson, who premiered The Postilion of Lonjumeau in New York on 3 March 1840, as well as by Anne and Edward Seguin. A standard offering of their troupe, the opera was performed twenty-two times in the spring of 1840 alone, twelve times in New York and ten times in Philadelphia. The Sequins performed it regularly from 1841 to 1848 and excerpts from the opera remained in their concert repertory through 1849. The Postilion of Lonjumeau was well-known to antebellum theater-goers and therefore was a good vehicle for minstrel parody.5

"Singing Darkies of Ohio" appears in White's Serenaders' Song Book, a songster published in Philadelphia by T.B. Peterson in 1851; this songster was reprinted in full by the same publisher in Chrity's and White's Ethiopian Melodies. White's Sernaders, managed by the prolific composer and arranger Charles White, was a popular troupe loated primarily in New York City. "Singing Darkies of Ohio" parodies "Come Friends adn Listen to the Story," which according to the sheet music cover was "sung by Mr. Wilson, with Great Applause int he Comic Opera of The Postilion of Lonjumeau." This is the same John Wilson who premiered the opera and also translated it into English.6 "Come Friends and listen to my story" is a translation of "Mes amis écoutez l'histoire," an aria found near the end of the first act. It was published in New York by C.E. Horn in 1840.

The minstrel parody is a close copy of the original (see Figure 1). Most of the original text is referenced and the general context of the aria is preserved. However, the text of the parody is clearly within the minstrel tradition, appropriating the operatic postillion and placing him in a stereotypical blackface role. This is evident thorugh the use of minstrel dialedt and the demeaning tone of the lyrics, for instance, the reference to the postilion as "little darkey."

"Singing Darkies of Ohio"			"Come, Friends, and Listen to My Story"

Come, darkies, listen to my story		Come, friends, and listen to the story
Ob a nigger gay and young			Of a postillion gay and young,
Well known to all for fame and glory-		Well known to all, his fame and glory
Throughout de land it has been sung.		Through ev'ry land have they been sung.
As he passed through town and village		When, he did pass thro' town or village
Each little darkey sang with joy,		Each maiden's eye was fill'd with joy,
"You're too late to come to supper,		And among hearts he made sad pillage
Old Dan Tucker," he would cry.			He was a gay and roving boy.
Oh! Oh! Oh!					Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! so great a beau
Oh! Oh! Oh! Tra la la la la!"			Was the postillion of Longumeau
Sang dis little darkey on de Ohio - 		Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! yes quiet a beau
Sang dis little darkey on de Ohio!		Was the postillion of Lonjumeau
[chorus]					. . . 
Oh, what a beau! what a beau! what a beau	Ah, quite a beau, quite a beau, quite a beau
Was dis young nigger ob de Ohio!		was the postillion of Lonjumeau
Oh, what a beau! what a beau! what a beau	ah, quite a beau, quite a beau, quite a beau
Was dis singing nigger ob de Ohio!		was the postillion of Lonjumeau.

(Change melody, and sing the Boatman 		[Aria ends here in the sheet music, 
Dance, as follows)				except for repeated verses]
The boatman he's a lucky man -- 
Dar's none can do as de boatman can:
I neber see'd a pretty gal in all my life,
But what she was some boatman's wife.
Dance, de Boatman Dance!
Oh, dance, de Boatman Dance!
We'll dance all night, 'till broad daylight,
An' go home wid de gals in de morning.

When you go to de boatman's ball, 
Dance wid my wife, or don't dance at all;
Sky-blue jacket an' a tarpolin' hat -- 
Look out, boys, for de nine-tail cat!

Figure 1. A comparison of the texts of "Come, Friends, and Listen to My Story" from 
The Postilion of Lonjeman (New York: C.E. Horn, 1840) and "Singing Darkies of Ohio,  
"as arranged and sung by White's Serenaders" White's Serenaders' Song Book (Philadelphia:
T.B. Peterson, 1851).

Use of "Old Dan Tucker" and "Boatman Dance" also relocates the operatic context to the minstrel show stage. The arranger of the parody was willing to sacrifice the otherwise consistent quatrain rhyme abab, maintained in the first stanza of the parody, to include the lines "Your too late to come to supper, Old Dan Tucker," in the second stanza (see Figure 1). These lines are excerpted from the chorus of "Old Dan Tucker," a popular minstrel show song published in 1843 and attributed to Dan Emmett, who frequently performed with White's Serenaders in the late 1840s and early 1850s.7 "Boatman Dance," also attributed to Emmett and published in 1843, concludes "Singing Darkies of Ohio" and is introduced by the minstrel author's presentation of the Ohio river, not the state, as the subject of this song, as evident in the chorus's reference to the Ohio river: "ob de Ohio."8 This provides a connection to "Boatman Dance" and replaces the postilion of the opera with a waterman of the Ohio river. The occupations of both postillion and boatman suggest travel, and the character of the postilion is successfully removed form his operatic context and placed into the comic blackfaced environment of the minstrel show boatman.

In addition to textual similarities, "Boatman Dance" and "Come Friends and Listen to the Story" also have musical similarities. Both are in 2/4 time and employ rhythmic patterns of short-note anacruses followed by longer notes that emphasize the strong beats of the measure. If "Singing Darkies of the Ohio" was performed with the same tempo throughout, the transition to "Boatman Dance" would have been relatively smooth.

"On Yonder Rock Reclining" is an English adaptation of "Voyez sur cette roche" from the first act of Fra Diavolo by Daniel Francois Esprit Auber (1782-1871). According to R.M. Longyear, Auber, who held the post of director of the Paris Conservatory from 1842 until his death, was the foremost representative of opéra-comique in nineteenth-century France.9 His Fra Diavolo was premiered in French at the Opéra-Comique on 28 January 1830, and in Philadelphia by the New Orleans Opera Company on 16 September 1831. Fra Diavolo was premiered in English by the opera star Elizabeth Austin in New York on 20 June 1833, in a version translated by the English actor Thomas Reynoldson. Also in New York, in November of 1833, Joseph and Mary Anne Paton Wood premiered another version of the opera in English translation, perhaps by Michael Rophino Lacy. Fra Diavolo formed a significant part of the operatic repertoire in the United States from the late 1830s to the late 1850s, and was performed each season from 1841 to 1851 by the Seguins.10

In the opera, the aria is sung by Zerlina, a servant at the Inn of Terracina, who describes the elusive bandit Fra Diavolo, and the third verse is sung by Fra Diavolo himself, in disguise. "On Yonder Rock Reclining" was also titled "Diavolo! Diavolo!" and was apparently a popular aria in the United States because there are several extant copies published by different firms. According to its subtitle in the songter De Negro's Original Piano-Rama, published in Philadelphia in 1850, "De Debbil, Oh!" is a parody of "On Yonder Rock Reclining," from "de uproar ob 'Fraid-ob-de-debil-oh.'" Figure 2 compares "De Debbil, Oh!" with "On Yonder Rock Reclining."

"De Debbil, Oh! Or, De Nigger Kidnapper. 	"On Yonder Rock Reclining"
A grand mystifferous negro romance, to de 
celecumbrated tune ob 'On yonder rock 
reclining,' in de uproar ob 

On date ole grim-long sprawlin,			On yonder rock reclining
Dat dank an sweatty form behold,		That fierce and swarthy form behold!
Fast in his jaw a great quid hold, 		Fast his hands his carbine hold,
Dat smells like a jojer old, 			'Tis his best friend of old!
Dis way his feet steps crawlin;			This way his steps inclining,
Five pounds ob wool hand o'er his brow		His Scarlet plum waves o'er his brow,
His gum elastic lips hang low,			And his velvet cloak hangs low,
And dangles to and fro.				Playing in careless flow.
Scramble! - (CRASH)				Tremble!
Each nigger's heart am beatin',			E'en while the storm is beating,
An dar teeth shakes while repeaten		Afar hear Echo repeating,
De debbil oh! de debbil, oh! de debbil, oh!	"Diavolo Diavolo Diavolo!"

Scramble!					Tremble!
Each nigga's heart, &c.				E'en while the storm, [&c.]

Although he blacks kidnappen,			Altho' his foes waylaying,
He fights like bull-dogs for a bone,		He fights with rage and hate combin'd,
Yet all de black fair sex do own,		Tow'rds the gentle Fair, they find
He grabs 'em by soft tone;			He's ever mild and king!
When gals go out a crabbin,			The Maid too heedless straying,
Dey run home walken backwards slow,		(For one we Pietro's Daughter know,)
An wid dar lips hung our foot low,		Home returns full sad and slow!
What make de wench do so?			What can have made her so>
Scramble!					Tremble!
Each gal to t'other gal meeting,		Each one the Maiden meeting,
Wid lock jaws am repeatin',			Is sure to be repeating,
De debbil, oh! de debbil, oh! de debbil, oh!	Diavolo, &c.
CHORUS - Scramble, &c.				Tremble! [&c.]

Figure 2.  The first two verses of "De Debbil, Oh!" from De Negro's Original 
Piano-Rama (Philadelphia: Fisher & Brother, 1850) and "On Yonder Rock Reclining" 
from Fra Diavolo (New York: Endicott, Jollie & Millett [n.d.]).

Although there were some indications in "Singing Darkies of Ohio" of the derogatory stereotypes of Blacks characteristic of minstrelsy, De Debbil, Oh!" is clearly an example of a minstrel parody that uses an operatic subject to mock and stereotype Blacks. For instance, the concluding lines of the first verse refer in derogatory terms to Black hair and lips, with the lines "Five poinds ob wool hand o'er his brow/His gum elastic lips hangs low." These stereotyped features parody the scarlet plume and velvet cloak of the opera text: "his scarelt plume waves o'er his brow/and his velvet cloak hans low." Much of the comedy of "de Debbil, Oh!" is constructed on the juxtaposition of the blackface clown with operatic aesthetics, evident in the use of nonsense Italianate words such as "Chorus Trembleoso Terroroso" and the general use of minstrel dialect and stereotypes.

The parody text is attributed in the songster preface to Silas Steele, a popular songwriter and playwright in the 1840s and 1850s. Steele's text carefully preserves elements of the original. For instance, the rhyme schem of "On Yonder Rock Reclining" is maintained even where text differs; each verse follos an abbaccc rhyme pattern. Additionally, like "singing Darkies of Ohio," the dramatic context of the original aria is present, but overrun by the conventions of minstrelsy. For instance, Zerlina's warning to women in the second verse is retained in the minstrel version; the villain is represented as a threat to momen in both accounts. However, this is where similarities between the two texts ends, evident in the low comedy of the female blackface clown, as in the text "Dey run home walken backwards slow/wid dar lips hung four foot low."

These two parodies of French opera demonstrate that minstrel arrangers gleaned their materials directly from operatic sources and parodied operas that were well-known to the theater-going public. A parody's success relies on the audience's familiarity with the original. That these pieces represent a small fraction of minstrel parodies of opera is a testimony to the popularity of opera in antebellum years. My study of minstrels' opera parodies supports the recent work of scholars such as Katherine Preston and Karen Ahlquist, whose contributions demonstrate the democratic nature of English opera performance during the antebellum period. Finally, These parodies indicate that blackface was manipulated by minstrel performers to conjure negative stereotypes of Blacks while simultaneously burlesquing operatic images, characters, and plots.

1. Analyses of these parodies is extracted from my dissertation, in process, entitled "Black Opera: Antebellum Blackface Minstrelsy and European Opera."

2. Katherine Preston, Opera on the Raod: Traveling Opera Troups in the United States, 1825-60 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993): 13, 92.

3. Preston 219; Karen Ahlquist, Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815-60 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997): 84.

4. William E. Studwell, Adolphe Adam and Leo Delibes, A Guide to Research (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987): 5.

5. Preston, 60, 86-91, 226-28; Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Strong on Music: The New York Music Scene in the Days of George Templeton Strong. Volume 1, Resonances, 1836-1849 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988): 214.

6. Preston, 284.

7. Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962): 216-7, 454.

8. Nathan, 320.

9. R. M. Longyear, "Auber, Daniel Francois Esprit," in New Groves, 5th ed.

10. Preston, 12-3, 31, 226-9, 374 n55, 380 n21, 391 n63.

Renee Lapp Norris is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland. This article is excerpted from her dissertation in progress entitled "Black Opera: Antebellum Blackface Minstrelsy and European Opera."

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Updated 6/15/99