Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Riot at the Astor Place Opera House

The Astor Place Riot
The Astor Place Riot

We mark the deadly riot on May 10, 1849 – 172 years ago today – that took place at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. Between 22 and 31 people were killed and many hundreds more injured, in a riot that pitted immigrants and members of the working class against the wealthy elite who controlled the city’s police and militia. 

Gala Openings, Class War, and Opera (and Theater) in the United States

We’ve all seen pictures of the things; I imagine some of us have even attended them: opera galas. In San Francisco (where the San Francisco Opera is second only to the Metropolitan Opera in terms of its budget and number of performances), the season opening opera gala is the major social event for those fine people who “do” major social events. Tickets for the gala cost a small fortune. For the men, black tie is de rigueur; for the women, off-the-shoulder gowns, freshly coiffed hair, and tons of jewelry are, but of course.

San Francisco Opera Gala, Opera House Lobby, September 8, 2017; a random snap
San Francisco Opera Gala, Opera House Lobby, September 8, 2017; a random snap © Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group

As best as I can tell, the social point of the gala is to be perceived as a member of the exclusive club that is “high society”: to be seen and to be photographed looking chic, happy, thin, and rich. Drink and dinner are served, though for the women strapped into their gowns, food is likely the last thing on their minds. As for the actual opera performance that takes place at the conclusion of the evening: it is, in fact, entirely incidental to the hoopla.

For this one evening a year, those in attendance can pretend that they have something in common with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French, English, and Russian nobility, who attended the opera as a necessary social exercise, a symbol of their sophistication and elevation above the rabble.

I show my lower middle class, proletarian, anti-ruling class roots by being outwardly disgusted by the whole display, though admittedly, just a bit irked that I’ve never been “invited”. Nevertheless, were I to be invited I would not go; displays such as these always make me extremely uncomfortable. 

Now please, don’t get me wrong: I know these events are traditional; I’m aware that they are big fundraisers and that, perhaps, some of the attendees might actually enjoy them. But these galas are dinosaurs: they promulgate a stereotypically elitist image that can only, in the end, contribute to the deaths of these institutions. …continue reading, only on Patreon!

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