Selected Criticism

Opera and Opera Singers
Stauffer, Donald Barlow
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Italian opera and opera singers were an important influence on Whitman's creative development during those crucial years in the early 1850s when Leaves of Grass was germinating. Probably no other single influence is more important than this one. When we consider how many poems Whitman calls songs or chants, and how many references he makes to the voice and to singing, we come to realize that music and singing were central to the creation of his poetry. "But for the opera," he declared, "I could never have written Leaves of Grass " (qtd. in Trowbridge 166). 

Even a quick glance at Whitman's poems will show the extent to which he thought of them in musical terms: from "Song of Myself" and the numerous other songs, to "Chants Democratic" and hundreds of references to the voice, singing, carols, hymns, choruses, musical instruments and the like. Operatic singing in particular, with its emotions, its atmosphere of close rapport between singer and audience, and its varied styles—particularly recitative and aria—is the ground upon which Whitman built many of his poems. It is possible to conceive of many of the long passages in "Song of Myself" and other poems as recitative in the Italian opera style: not only the catalogs, which rhythmically enumerate his experiences and perceptions, but the narrative or dramatic passages as well. Interspersed throughout these recitative passages are lyrical sections, such as the apostrophe to "voluptuous cool-breath'd earth" in section 21, that approximate operatic arias. Such analogies with recitative and aria are made explicit in"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," where the mockingbird sings its aria of loss, and in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," in which the hermit thrush sings its carol of death. 

Whitman was particularly responsive to musical influences during the late 1840s and early 1850s, when Leaves of Grass was in its gestation stage and he was regularly attending the performances of Italian opera singers and companies in New York. The moods awakened in him by music played and sung in the streets, in the theater and in private shaped many of the poems he wrote. His own voice, "orotund sweeping and final," was a response to the almost mystical ecstasy he experienced when listening to grand opera and the singing of his favorite tenors and sopranos. In his manuscript notebooks he wrote of "the chanted Hymn whose tremendous sentiment shall uncage in my breast a thousand wide-winged strengths and unknown ardors and terrible ecstasies" (Uncollected 2:85)—a passage he reworked and included at the end of section 26 of "Song of Myself," beginning, "I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera, / Ah this indeed is music—this suits me." 

Whitman was first exposed to opera in the 1840s, when the operas of Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi were performed in the Park Theater by companies featuring some of the great Italian singers of the day: Cesare Badiali, Marietta Alboni, Allesandro Bettini and others. Although he had earlier denounced the opera in 1845 as foreign and decadent, he quickly became a passionate convert, around the time when Don Francisco Marti's Italian opera company arrived from Havana in 1847 for a month-long season at the Castle Garden. 

He began hearing opera regularly at the Astor Place Opera House from the time it opened in 1847; he also attended productions at the Park and Broadway theaters and others, and after 1854 at the beautiful new Academy of Music. It was during these years that he came to love the lyrical belcanto style of the operas of Giacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Donizetti and the early Verdi and became a devoted opera lover. The belcanto style has its origins in the operas of Rossini, but was used by other Italian opera composers, including Donizetti, the early Verdi, and most notably Bellini, whose operas present a challenge to the singer's vocal technique. Bel canto consists of long passages of simple melody alternating with outbursts of elaborate vocal scrollwork, which turns the voice into a complex wind instrument. The desired effect was to heighten the dramatic meaning and significance of the words through attention to pitch, dynamics, melody, and timing. This highly emotional and intense use of the human voice was in Whitman's view the highest form of art. 

In a piece in Specimen Days Whitman recalls his opera-going experiences in the early 1850s: "I heard, these years, well render'd, all the Italian and other operas in vogue, 'Somnambula,' 'The Puritans' [both by Bellini], 'Der Freischutz' [Carl Maria von Weber], 'Huguenots' [Giacomo Meyerbeer], 'Fille d'Regiment' [Donizetti], 'Faust' [Charles Gounod], 'Etoile du Nord' [Meyerbeer], 'Poliuto' [Donizetti], and others. Verdi's 'Ernani,' 'Rigoletto,' and 'Trovatore,' with Donizetti's 'Lucia' or 'Favorita' or 'Lucrezia,' and Auber's 'Massaniello,' or Rossini's 'William Tell' and 'Gazza Ladra,' were among my special enjoyments" (Prose Works 1:20). 

Whitman was an enthusiastic fan of the great Italian singers who came to New York. His favorite tenor was Allesandro Bettini, who had a deep and lasting effect on him. The voice of Bettini, who performed the title role of Ernani and sang in Donizetti's La Favorita in August 1851, moved Whitman to tears; "the singing of this man," he wrote, "has breathing blood within it; the living soul, of which the lower stage they call art, is but the shell and sham" (Uncollected 1:257). Bettini is almost certainly the tenor whom Whitman describes in section 26 of "Song of Myself." Another of his favorites was the great Cesare Badiali, in Whitman's opinion the "superbest of all superb baritones" in the world: "a big, coarse, broad-chested, feller, invested, however, with absolute ease of demeanor—a master of his art—confident, powerful, self-sufficient" (Traubel 173). Others include the soprano Angiolina Bosio, who later became the toast of Europe; Giulia Grisi and her husband Giuseppe Mario, who Whitman said was "inimitable" in Lucrezia Borgia. A poem written in Whitman's later years commemorates the death and funeral of another tenor, Pasquale Brignoli, whom he had heard years earlier in many roles in the 1840s and 1850s. The poem, "The Dead Tenor" (1884), acknowledges the strong influence of the singing voice on his own "chants." 

But his favorite singer by far was the contralto Madame Marietta Alboni, one of the greatest singers of the nineteenth century, who created a sensation in her only New York season in 1852-1853. In the fall she appeared at Niblo's Garden in twelve operas, and gave eleven more performances at other houses in the winter and spring. In addition she gave twelve operatic recitals and was a soloist in Rossini's Stabat Mater. One music critic wrote, "Alboni's performances are as purely and absolutely beautiful as it is possible for anything earthly to be" (qtd. in Faner 29). Whitman was obviously in agreement, since he recalled in Specimen Days that he "heard Alboni every time she sang in New York and vicinity" (Prose Works 1:20). His poem "To a Certain Cantatrice" (1860) is addressed to Madame Alboni, who he says is as deserving of his tribute as heroes, generals, and other "confronter[s] of despots." She is also prominently featured in the poem most richly commemorating his operatic enthusiasms, "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869): "The teeming lady comes, / The lustrous orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother, / Sister of loftiest gods, Alboni's self I hear" (section 3). Alboni's most profound influence is on the aria of the mockingbird in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and the carol of the hermit thrush in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," both of which are distillations of Whitman's experiences in listening to her singing. 

These two poems, in fact, employ a recitative-aria structure quite consciously modeled on Italian operatic style. In "Out of the Cradle" the bird songs are printed in italics in order to emphasize the lyrical quality of the aria, while the recitative parts underline the dramatic content and structure of the poem, which, like Italian opera, tells a tragic story of love, separation, and death. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" contains more recitative than aria, and does not so clearly distinguish between them. The arias are not italicized, but they have an effect similar to those in "Out of the Cradle." In construction, however, the poem is closer in form to the sonata or symphony than to opera. 

The poem in which Whitman mentions opera most extensively is "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869), a kind of musical autobiography, in which he lists the variety of musical influences on his life and poetry. If he resisted the influence of European culture in many ways, he clearly did not when it came to music; he devotes over a third of the poem to the operas of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Mozart, singling out "Italia's peerless compositions" and the roles of Norma, Lucia and Ernani. "Proud Music" also celebrates Rossini's Stabat Mater (in which he had heard Alboni perform), and the symphonies and oratorios of Beethoven, Handel and Haydn, including The Creation

His preference was clearly for the passionate Italian style of singing. He had little interest in what the critic Richard Grant White called "the thin, throaty, French way of singing" (qtd. in Faner 63), nor did he share the widespread popular enthusiasm for the dazzling recitals of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, a creature of P.T. Barnum who became a great celebrity during her 1851-1852 New York season. After hearing her perform Whitman commented on the singing of this "strangely overpraised woman," writing that she "never touched my heart in the least," and that "there was a vacuum in the head of the performance . . . It was the beauty of Adam before God breathed into his nostrils" (Uncollected 1:257). 

Another important influence upon Whitman's developing taste for operatic music was George Sand's novel Consuelo (1843), a story of the career of a great singer that he described to many of his friends as a masterpiece. In highly rhetorical and florid passages describing the almost unearthly quality of the heroine's voice, the novel's English translation gave Whitman a language for describing the effect on his readers he desired his poems to create. The reaction of Consuelo's lover to her singing, for example, is described in language that could be Whitman's own describing his poetry: "Music expresses all that the mind dreams and foresees of mystery and grandeur. It is the manifestation of a higher order of ideas and sentiments than any to which human speech can give expression. It is the revelation of the infinite; and when you sing, I only belong to humanity in so far as humanity has drunk in what is divine and eternal in the bosom of the Creator" (qtd. in Faner 47). The novel had much to do with forming his taste for great singing and the experience of listening to it, as well as inspiring in him a mystical response to the glories of the human voice. 

In addition to his poems about opera and opera singers Whitman wrote a number of reviews and essays about them. In 1846-1847, when editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he published thirteen articles on musical subjects. His first critical opera review was of Rossini's The Barber of Seville in March 1847. His most extended prose piece onopera and the pleasures of opera-going is "Letter from Paumanok," published on 14 August 1851, in the New York Evening Post. Another relatively long essay, "The Opera," appeared in Life Illustrated in November 1855, just four months after the publication of Leaves of Grass. In later years he included reminiscences of his opera-going days in Specimen Days and in an essay, "The Old Bowery," collected in the prose section of Good-Bye My Fancy


Cooke, Alice L. "Notes on Whitman's Musical Background." New England Quarterly 19 (1946): 224-235. 

Faner, Robert D. Walt Whitman & Opera. 1951. London: Feffer and Simons, 1972. 

Lawrence, Vera Brodsky. "'Unloos'd Cantabile': Walt Whitman and the Italian Opera." Seaport 26.1 (1992): 38-45. 

Pound, Louise. "Walt Whitman and Italian Music." AmericanMercury 6 (1925): 58-63. 

Spiegelman, Julia. "Walt Whitman and Music." SouthAtlantic Quarterly 41(1942): 167-176. 

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908. 

Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 89 (1902): 163-175. 

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964. 

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921. 


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