The 1895-1896 inaugural season of The Auditorium, Agincourt’s opera house, was a high point in community history. It represented not only the city’s aspiration to match cultural accomplishments of other nearby cities — Des Moines, Sioux City and Omaha — but also to represent the full range of local talent. Trying to reconstruct that season involves an exploration of theatre, music and other forms of entertainment that are less common now. I met someone at coffee this afternoon, an NDSU art graduate, who’s expressed interest in creating some of the graphics that would have advertised each performance and enticed an audience through the doors and into their seats.
Looking at what passed for “high culture” in the 1890s has been fun. A handful of potential players in the game were familiar by name and reputation, if not detail. Here are some putative events:
- One of the more famous violinists of that era was Edouard (Ede) Reményi, a Jewish Hungarian by birth and friend of Johannes Brahms. He spent much of his late career in the U.S. and died at a San Francisco concert in 1898. Several sources give his birth name as Hoffman, but on the stage he was known only as Reményi. A 1906 posthumous biography provides some fodder for the possibility of an Iowa visit: “In the Autumn of that year . he made his second visit to the United States, giving his first concert at Steinway Hall, New York. During the next few weeks he played in the New York Philharmonic concerts; in the Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts under Theodore Thomas’s baton; in the Carlberg symphony concerts, in Boston, Hartford, and, in the latter part of December, in Washington, where he was the guest of President Hayes at the White House. The following year he continued his American tour, playing in New York, Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Quincy, Illinois, Burlington, Iowa, and other cities. In 1880 he went as far west as Colorado and greatly enjoyed himself in the mining camps, where he made himself a favorite with the miners by his impromptu performances.” There were also long periods when his whereabouts were unknown — but hinted at cities around the globe.
- Recitals of rhetoric and erudition were common entertainments, growing from the Chautauqua circuits. But these “displays” are more difficult to pin down than musical performances.
- Aside from theatrical performance by local companies and traveling troupes, I had a brain fart a few days ago about an opera that might have been staged. And as I thought about it, the standard repertoire seemed too easy. Like Agincourt’s Roman Catholic church, dedicated to an imaginary saint, why not invent an opera, the titular subject of this entry.
Its title “Philidor” popped into my head, and the chain reaction began:
- Philidor is a character only mentioned in the 1946 British film “A Matter of Life and Death,” which was released in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven.” [I didn’t realize it was a propaganda piece.] It’s the story of a British pilot in WWII who was supposed to die during a flight over the Channel but was missed by Death’s collector, Conductor 71, in a dense fog. The film revolves about the pilot (David Niven*) and his legal battle to remain among the living. Conductor 71 (played with delicious French foppishness, by Marius Goring, a character actor you might remember from “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) tempts Niven taht a match with Philidor, the 18th century French chess grand master, might be possible. But I prefer to think he was Philidor, a name that I love.
- It turns out that, besides his prowess at chess, Philidor was also a composer of light opera! More than thirty of them, in fact, none of which are performed today. But that fact played nicely into the developing narrative.
- This should be an opera about Philidor, not by him. So who would have written such a work? Claude Monet and Wikipedia came to my aid. His surname will be Argentuille, which comes from an obscure painting by Monet, and his given name Didier derives from an ancient Roman, Didius, a.k.a. Desiderius, which can be translated as “ardent desire” or “the longed-for” (both of which suit my current melancholy). So Didier d’Argentuille he will be and require a backstory, too, which can occupy me for weeks.
- The story of Philidor as composer will be a tough sell. But as a chess grand master, there is a nugget too good to pass by: the Café de la Régence in Paris was the 18th century hangout for chess aficionados and it was there that François-André Danican Philidor played chess with none other than Benjamin Franklin, with whom I share a birthday! Talk about manna from heaven. So, in the spirit of Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a Parisian bar in Montmartre will be the setting for this most unlikely of encounters, Argentuille’s comic opera “Philidor”, dramatized with the philosophical asides of Ben Franklin and François-André Philidor during a chess game on a summer afternoon in 1740.
That’s the way things work here in Agincourt. All of it contrived create a placard announcing its performance on an October weekend in northwestern Iowa during 1895.
* The film is populated by many famous character actors of mid-century. Besides Niven, there were Kim Hunter, Michael Trubshawe, Richard Attenborough, Marius Goring, and Raymond Massey — all names that will be a mystery to anyone under fifty.
[#894] [revised: 28.12.2022]