Saturday, October 29, 2016

Local Glories: Opera Houses on Main Street, Where Art and Community Meet


Rating:  3 Stars

I received this book as an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

...And man, did it take forever to struggle through.

In the end, I am kind of confused still about the author's intent for this publication. Overall I found the book disorganized and all over the place. As such, my review might be the same.

At its heart, the book is meant to be about the development of opera houses across America and how they grew to become a hub of cultural activity in the cities where they were located. The author focused on a few specific states and tracked how they grew, changed, fell into disrepair, and ultimately how some were saved, but more still are merely shells of their once-great selves.

It took me a long time to get into this one. And this happened over and over. My interest would be piqued, then it would meander around and kind of lose its way, then I would stumble on an interesting part again. This went on for a while. That's not to say I didn't learn anything about opera houses or their uses. Quite the opposite, I can readily admit. For example, I learned that most of Andrew Carnegie's libraries also had music halls, because he considered those to be just as important to the cultural well-being of the city.

I was really interested as the author began tying in theatre to the opera houses. There was a comparison of how theatre developed in the north vs. the south. With the north being ruled by New England, the Puritans, and the Quakers, theatre was outlawed for a long time, but this was not so in the south, where it flourished. The issue here is that while the author discusses traveling theatre troupes at length, yet theatres and opera houses were often separate venues. It felt to me like the focus in these sections was more on the cultural and societal opportunities, and not the opera houses. A lot of the time, it did not make a lot of sense to included the information about the activities that took place out of the opera houses. From there the author jumped to riverboats, also called "entertainment boats" and it was again confusing.

At this point I was not sure I could finished the book because it was just so over the place and was about so much more than what the title implied. In reading the title, I thought the book would focus on opera houses as hubs of activity, as implied by the subtitle of art and community coming together.

One of many examples of how the text seemed to jump around: at about 32% there was a very specific section about the adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin from the book, then to a random paragraph about opera houses burning down. The book skipped around in time as well, not just from topic to topic. Then we get information about indoor bicycling in another section that was all over the map and it was almost too much. It became literally just paragraphs of all the activities held at the opera houses, by town - bands, roller skating, school debates and graduations, boxing matches, etc. While this information was exactly what I was expecting from this text, I feel like a different way of organizing the facts would have helped the book immensely.

As I look back on my notes, I see time and again places that I marked as being very scattered and almost mishmash. In addition, the text got very repetitive. Around 50%, there was a point where within a few paragraphs the author stated three different times that many opera houses were destroyed by fires, natural disasters, etc.

There are some positives here that I would like to point out. First and foremost, I am always a fan of using contemporary sources not just a research of course, but as visuals or direct quotes. The author did this; for example, at 14% there was an article from a Kentucky newspaper from 1890 in relation to the topic.

Another positive that I personally found of interest was that the author spent considerable time talking about Nebraska. It was interesting to see how the population of the state changed and as people immigrated here, how they used the opera houses. If the book did anything, it at least got me interested in seeing the opera houses that still exist here and learning more about their specific histories.

The text itself ended at 85%, and was followed by an appendix of opera houses that still exist, state by state. As I had an ARC, this was kind of jumbled. Hopefully that problem was sorted out for the final print copy. Some states also simply said "no data", and the author pointed out the list was not an exhaustive one. It would be good if she had been able to locate at least some information on opera houses still in existence in those states. The notes section ran from 90% to 94%. The bibliography takes up the remaining 6%. As I said before, there is substantial research, it just did not always fit together in a way that made sense.

In the end though, what it feels like happened is that the author had too much information and did not know how to organize it. There are so many chapters, but it feels like she makes the same statements and tells the same stories over and over. She might have been better served to have organized the chapters by the specific opera houses she was looking at, with perhaps a more 'general information' chapter at the beginning. The book was so all-over-the-place that it ended up taking me sixth months to get through - and even longer to get the review written. I think I would still recommend it, but with some reservation. The history itself of these beautiful buildings, and the conservation going on today to save many, is worth the read. You will, however, have to meander your way along with the text to get to that history.

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