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Falling off the Roof and into the Opera House: Jews, Opera, and Anxiety in Twentieth Century America

Sun, December 13, 3:45 to 5:00pm


When the Marx Brothers interrupt the prelude of Verdi’s IL TROVATORE with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), they are following a comic script about Jews and opera that can be traced at least as far back as B. Kovner’s 1914 “YENTE IN METROPOLITAN OPERA-HOYS” (“Yente at the Metropolitan Opera House”). This short story features Yente Telebende, who goes to the Metropolitan Opera to see Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, but gets unceremoniously thrown out when she falls asleep, and has such a terrible nightmare about her son falling off the roof that she wakes up screaming. Findings from the Florida Atlantic University, Dartmouth, and University of California Santa Barbara sound archives reveal that sending a Jewish immigrant on a disastrous visit to the opera became a popular comic device for American Jewish humorists. By the time this plot reached the Marx Brothers, it had already enjoyed two decades of development in Jewish dialect records and talkie films.
The following study traces the evolution of this plot and explores the reasons it resonated with Jewish creators and audiences. Intertwining comedy, Jews, and opera, it is premised upon the reality of a complex American Jewish relationship with opera in the early twentieth century, one that musicologists have not yet explored. My paper assesses the plot’s precedents, and follows its transformation across the lines of media, language, and gender from 1914 through 1935. Throughout, I draw on studies of American Jewish humor, opera popularization, and technological advancement to argue that the expansion and perpetuation of this plot emerged from deeply-rooted Jewish anxieties about gaining acceptance in America during a period of heightened xenophobia. I further suggest that, in the process of employing the opera as a subject in Jewish popular culture products, the genre became a stand-in for the institutions where many middle- and lower-class acculturating Jews felt like imposters. By embracing rather than refusing the role of disruptive outsiders in the imagined opera house, American Jews at once acknowledged and laid bare their own cultural difference for the pleasure of their community.