How Opera Inspired Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'
I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — that suits me.
Walt Whitman wasn’t always an opera fan. As a budding young journalist in New York, he was known to take potshots at the etiquette and artifice of what he saw as an aristocratic pastime. Whitman cultivated a more democratic persona and preferred popular songs, which he called “heart” — as opposed to “art” — music.
But in the late 1840s, when he was nearing 30, Whitman found himself suddenly under the spell of bel canto masterpieces by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. He grew to idolize divas and claimed to have never missed a New York appearance by the Italian contralto Marietta Alboni, who “roused whirlwinds of feeling within me,” he later recalled.
Opera was, in the end, so important to Whitman that he claimed it was essential to conceiving and writing his magnum opus, the poetry collection “Leaves of Grass,” which contains hundreds of musical terms, as well as the names of composers and performers. The word “song” appears more than 150 times.
Now the young composer Matthew Aucoin has used the art form Whitman loved to tell the story of his Civil War years in the opera “Crossing,” which has its New York premiere on Oct. 3 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“Crossing,” a fictional account of Whitman’s time as a volunteer nurse during the war, takes place after his salad days (or, rather, salad nights) at New York theaters. During those formative years in the 1840s and ’50s, he was “an arts-loving dandy,” Mr. Aucoin said in an interview.
“Whitman goes from being a journalist and publishing in the papers to suddenly blossoming into this creature that appeared in ‘Leaves of Grass,’” Gary Schmidgall, the author of “Walt Whitman: A Gay Life,” said. “In fact, he was influenced by going to a lot of opera.”
Before becoming an opera house regular, Whitman was a fan of lighter fare, in particular the Hutchinson Family Singers and minstrel shows. His changed his mind about opera once he saw just how democratic performances really were, said David S. Reynolds, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of “Walt Whitman’s America.”
“Whitman noticed how the theater was filled with both the elite and the roughs,” Mr. Reynolds said. “He began to view opera as a way to bridge social gaps and bring people together on the level of beauty.”
He saw some of the most beloved operas in the repertory, including Bellini’s “Norma” and Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” as well as works that are more rarely heard today, like Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable” and Donizetti’s “La Favorite.”
“As he experienced opera, he had a distinctly erotic response to it,” said Ed Folsom, a professor at the University of Iowa and a director of the online Walt Whitman Archive. “The power of the voice to penetrate the ears of the listener in that way became a transporting experience.”
In 1855, Whitman described his feelings during a performance of Verdi’s “Ernani” in an article for Life magazine, writing: “A new world — a liquid world — rushes like a torrent through you.” Another of Whitman’s most vivid descriptions of opera comes from the sprawling poem “Song of Myself”:
I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them
He had his favorite singers, such as Pasquale Brignoli, whom Whitman memorialized in the poem “The Dead Tenor.” Another tenor, Alessandro Bettini, is thought to have an unnamed cameo in “Song of Myself”:
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
But no singer seems to have influenced Whitman more than Alboni, the contralto. She “opened the possibility of both ‘heart’ and ‘art’ music,” Mr. Reynolds said.
Alboni appears in Whitman’s reminiscences; “Leaves of Grass”; and his memoir “Specimen Days.” In the opera-rich poem “Proud Music of the Storm,” he mentions her by name:
The teeming lady comes,
The lustrous orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother,
Sister of loftiest gods, Alboni’s self I hear.
“Proud Music of the Storm” makes extravagant references to opera: “Norma brandishing the dagger,” “poor crazed Lucia’s eyes” and more, for a total of seven allusions. (The “Norma” Whitman saw was a passion project of Alboni’s. It was staged for two nights only, and the title role, normally sung by a soprano, was transposed lower to accommodate her range.)
Opera may have provided a way for Whitman to process the horrors of the Civil War. His slim book “Memoranda During the War,” which inspired “Crossing,” is fragmented into vignettes with operatic flourishes: observations, even grisly details, followed by sweeping, impassioned statements about broader subjects like youth, America and conflict.
Whitman used opera “as a sort of sponge to sum up the totality of American experience,” Mr. Reynolds said. “The way opera beautifies, intensifies, cleanses the war of its pedestrian tawdriness, the disgusting nature.” (Mr. Aucoin said that when he read “Memoranda,” he was struck, and even made a bit uncomfortable, by Whitman’s “insane tendency to find beauty in everything.”)
In both his poetry and prose, Whitman wrote with a rhythm that took war “out of the realm of either the merely shocking or the distressingly gory,” Mr. Reynolds added. “He had always used poetry, ever since 1855, as a means of cleansing or uplifting the darker aspect of human existence.”
In effect, Mr. Folsom said, Whitman was “casting music in words upon a page.” It makes sense then, he added, that more than 600 composers have set those poems to music.
“It’s amazing how many composers go there,” he said, “because the general sense in Whitman’s own time was that he was a tremendously unmusical poet.”
“Crossing,” however, is not a pastiche of Whitman’s own words. Mr. Aucoin wrote an original libretto that quotes some poems, including “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which provides the opera’s cryptic opening line: “What is it, then, between us?”
If it weren’t for the dramatic wartime context of “Crossing,” Mr. Aucoin said, he likely wouldn’t have ever set Whitman’s poetry to music.
“There’s so much music in it already,” he said. “For a poem or a piece of prose to be fit to be set to music, there has to be something latent in it, like firewood that needs to be fully set on fire. It can’t drown the music out, and Whitman’s usually does.”
Writing an original libretto also allowed Mr. Aucoin to create a nuanced portrait of Whitman that wouldn’t fall into what he called “a curious idealizing tendency among recent operas.” (As an example, he pointed to “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” which had its premiere in July in Santa Fe.)
“We come across this anodyne, excerpted, Reader’s Digest Whitman in eighth grade,” Mr. Aucoin said. “And then if you delve deeper into the body of work, you discover that actually he’s this limitless ocean of ideas and ambition.”
Mr. Aucoin said that in reading Whitman’s works, he was struck by how different the antebellum poems — which have a burning, at times pleading voice — were from those written after the Civil War, which “don’t have the same urgency.”
In those later years, Whitman wasn’t known to have attended any operas. He never heard Wagner, though he welcomed compliments comparing his poetry to Wagner’s librettos. Still, the performances he attended in his youth lingered in his memory.
Mr. Schmidgall said that the surviving manuscript for the first biography of Whitman, written by his friend Richard Maurice Bucke in 1883, contains a handwritten addition by Whitman: “During the gestation of the poems, the author was saturated for years with the rendering by the best vocalists and performers of the best operas.”
Whitman lived at the end of his life in a small house in Camden, N.J. Multiple strokes left him wheelchair-bound and infirm, but he spent countless hours talking with Horace Traubel, who transcribed their conversations for a nine-volume, 6,000-page collection called “With Walt Whitman in Camden.”
During one visit Whitman told him: “I never think of Alboni but I think of the finest voice, organ, that ever was. Her contralto — what purity! What a range! And whatever the change of pitch, there was no loss of power, of integrity.”
And a few months before the poet died, nearly 40 years after he first heard Alboni sing, he described to Traubel a scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor”: leaning “way out of his chair — his gray hair shaken, his eye bright with fire, his voice deep and full of music.”