Opera cards fall into a number of categories: opera houses, opera singers, pictures of real productions or artists' fantasies of stage settings. This article deals mainly with the latter two types.
Because the golden age of postcard publishing coincided with the Wagner cult, which begun in the latter part of the composer's life and reached its height by the turn of the century, cards of Wagner operas abound; they seem to outstrip even Italian opera cards.
There are a great number of artist-rendered Wagner cards: Tuck issued a series of six cards for some of the operas. by the artist Stassen. Another set by this artist was published by ESD, each picture framed in an Art Nouveau border. M. Munk, Vienna, issued a card for each opera, including Wagner's first opera "Feen" (probably not heard these seventy years!). These beautiful cards by artist F. Leeke were simultaneosly published for the British market by Faulkner, London. (I own a mixed set). A "Parsival" set in poster style (probably 6 in the series) by artist Schutz was reprinted for the American (unauthorized) performance by Henry Savage.
Bridging the gap between artist-rendered cards and pictures of stage settings is an interesting set by artist Joseph Hoffmann, a Viennese landscape painter whom Wagner engaged to design the first Bayreuth "Ring." These drawings proved to be overly detailed and, when transplanted into three dimensional sets, made for a cluttered stage. Still, they were used with modifications into the early 20th century. The cards are sepia, undivided, and some have titles in 3 languages. I have l5 of them -- probably not the full set.
The publisher Schwalb, Berlin, issued sets of cards for all Wagner operas. Only a few are numbered (from "Meistersinger") and many were also marketed under the Breitkopf & Haertel imprint with English titles. They were based on photographs of actual stage settings with stand-ins for the singers. Sometimes the opera characters were pasted in from separate photographs. These pictures, although invaluable for the history of stage settings, tend to be a bit murky. The "Ring" is well represented among Schwalb cards. I have l4 cards alone of the "Walkure," although judging from the costumes, they might be from two different sets. (I don't think Wotan changed his outfits during the Immolation scene!) Other "Ring" sets were issued by Boehm, Munich, and of these, some too were numbered. There is no end of "Parsival" cards. Aside from the Schwalb set (l2 ?) there is a F. Huld, New York, set (at least 4), a Bayreuth Festspiele l968, and many more. Among "Lohengrin" cards a set of l2 by AL (Aristophat?) appeared in both in black-and-white and handtinted forms; I have a mixed set. Aside from the Schwalb sets, both "Tannhauser" & "Tristan" cards of the Bayreuth Festpiele (around l930) appeared under the auspices of Columbia records; in l977 another group was published.
Mozart cards are extremely rare, due to the fact that Mozart operas were not frequently performed during the postcard craze. The only early types available are artist-rendered, for instance, an unsigned card of the "Magic Flute" published by Faulkner, Vienna. In the late 1920s or early 1930s a set of "Don Giovanni" artist-rendered cards in the art deco style were published by the Weiner Mozart Gemeinde. Some of them are signed "A.K."
Of artist-rendered Italian opera cards, the most desirable ones are the Art Nouveau sets published by Riccordi, Milan, and illustrated by Mataloni: Mascagni's "Iris" and Metllicovitz's "Tosca" and "Madama Butterfly." The latter was also used as an advertisement for American productions at various opera houses. He also did an "Aida" (5 cards?) and a "Falstaff;" neither of them I have ever seen. A set of "La Boheme," unsigned, (sometimes attributed to Hohenstein) is less desirable because the pictures are small and the white borders large.
"Tosca" is presently the most performed opera world-wide, but the number of publishers who issued "Tosca" cards proves that its popularity is not recent. Aside from the previously mentioned Riccordi cards, I have part of a set of real photographs (which probably totals l2 in number). They are handtinted, published in Germany, and carry the logo PH inside a triangle. The Italian publisher Alterocci issued a set with bars of music on them and undivided backs. Other "Tosca" cards: a Genovese publisher came out with undivided cards -- probably one for each act -- which claim to be "instant photographs by artificial light" and, way into the 1920s, Sovianofot (?) issued sepia cards based on photographs.
An early set of probably 8 "Trovattore" cards, undivided, no publisher, is artist-drawn (but no high art here!). Alterocci published a set of "Cavalleria Rusticana," each with a bar of music; the titles are in Italian and French. They also produced a similar set for "Pagliacci."
One of my rarest cards must be an "Electra" card published by Schwalb -- a real photograph featuring Frau Krull, the first Electra on stage. Advancing into more recent times, small, early chromes were issued by New York's City Center of Music and Drama covering Mozart operas, Donizetti, Handel and even a "Macropoulous Affair." Modern chromes are sometimes available at opera houses which boast an opera shop, but they are not common.
Space does not permit me to list every opera for which cards exist, but the above selection might give the opera lover an idea of what is out there, waiting for him or her. Many of the lesser operas which have almost disappeared from the repertoire can be found on cards: "Manon," "Martha," "Rienzi," and others. And for a look at Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" on a fantasy postcard, you can venture over to my illustrated web page "Beethoven on Vintage Postcards."
Finally, The reader might well ask why I have not included "Carmen." Numerous sets exist -- an interesting German one with puppets for actors stands out -- but I am not fond of "Carmen" and have, so far, not added this opera to my postcard collection.
Research material on opera cards is sparse. Some artist rendered Wagner cards are described in Mashburn's book "Fantasy Postcards" (Colonial House l996). An article on Wagner cards, "Nights at the Opera" (by yours truly) appeared in "Postcard Collector" in August l995.
Prices for opera cards are high and rising; demand is probably related to an increased interest in opera.
The above article does not do justice to opera cards; should I live long enough and have enough money to collect many more cards I might attempt a book. Input would be appreciated. (Send data on your "Carmen" cards, please!)
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