The opening bars of the opera. William Atkinson, piano

The final scene of the opera. Bryan Davis, baritone;

William Atkinson, piano


Digging Up the Pasha’s Garden

By Glen Nelson

In 1935, the Metropolitan Opera gave the world premiere of In the Pasha’s Garden by an unknown, Californian composer named John Laurence Seymour. He is the only Mormon composer to have had a work performed by the Met.

It was a monumental disaster. Here is its story.

Chapter 1

A Premiere Catastrophe

Time Magazine 2/4/1935

In the Pasha’s Garden … “had its premiere at the Metropolitan last week and established an all-time record for dullness and ineptitude.

“Composer Seymour had said that the orchestra described the characters' true feelings in contrast to the words they sang. Perhaps this scheme was too subtle for the literal-minded. The music was never unpleasant, but for 50 minutes it ambled along like a monotonous introduction to something which never began. Unfortunately for the libretto, the Pasha was played by Lawrence Tibbett whose diction is so clear that the audience understood every word he sang. And fortunately for John Laurence Seymour a Manhattan audience will applaud any new opera.”

The reviews were universally awful. Other notices of the opera, In the Pasha’s Garden, on the morning of January 25, 1935 called the production “just plain silly” (New York Daily News), and “This work impresses the writer as not one of the best but one of the worst American operas produced hereabouts in years. In the Pasha’s Garden is tedious and inept to a degree. It lasts only fifty-five minutes, but that becomes a very long time.” (The New York Times)

I am writing a book on Mormons at the Met. In my research, I came across the name of John Laurence Seymour in the opera house’s archives. I met Seymour while I was a college student and remembered that there was a Mormon connection. As I read articles written in 1934 and 1935 about him and his opera, some things didn’t add up for me. Here was a new opera premiered by the Met, sung by the most important American singers of the era, a score published by the biggest name on Tin Pan Alley. There were literally hundreds of articles written about Seymour and the opera, across the country, in newspapers of every size. The first-hand reports of the performances said that the audiences cheered for the work. It was a hot ticket. The American public followed news of it closely. The month of the premiere, The New York Times ran nine separate articles about the composer and the opera. Seymour was awarded a large prize for the opera on opening night.

There must be more to the story than the bad reviews. Was the opera really as bad as all that? The history of opera is a parade of critics’ misjudgments. What was Seymour’s side of the story? What did it mean for Mormon music? I started digging.

My first task was to find the opera’s score and see for myself what it was like. The piano-vocal score of the opera was published in 1934 by T.J. Harms, the Tin Pan Alley firm that discovered and produced sheet music by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and many other Broadway greats. The score was dedicated to Lawrence Tibbett, the towering American baritone who had already sung 395 performances at the Met by the time he premiered the role of the Pasha. I discovered a copy of the opera at Columbia University library, and thanks to a friend in academia, Claudia Bushman, I had a beautifully bound copy on my piano shortly thereafter.

I’m not a great pianist by any stretch, but I play well enough that I can give an approximation of a score. I opened Seymour’s opera and played through a few pages, first to see what the thing sounded like, and later to understand how he set the libretto to music. My first impression was that the music had an exotic tinge to it. Some of it reminded me of Debussy and early Strauss. I wrote to a couple of talented friends and asked for their help. Could they sing through some of the opera and give me their opinion of it? I asked help from Bryan Davis who is a baritone with a big voice to sing a bit of the role of the Pasha and Bill Atkinson, a marvelous accompanist with a curious mind to match. They agreed to record an excerpt. David Fletcher, who is also a wonderful friend as well as a musician and composer, helped me scan some pages of the score to facilitate things. As the musicians read through the score, I continued research into the history of the opera itself.

The one-act opera—it was originally titled The Eunuch—had been accepted by the Metropolitan Opera a year before its premiere. At the time, very few had ever heard of the Californian Seymour. An article by Talbot Lake in the Berkeley Daily Gazette of Oct. 30, 1934 lays the groundwork of the local public expectation, “Some men have greatness trust upon them, but most have to work long and hard before achieving it. John Laurence Seymour, of Sacramento, Cal., probably thought Dame Fortune was treating him pretty shabbily, but now everything is top hole, for the Metropolitan Opera Company has accepted his opera, In a Pasha’s Garden, (sic) for production this season. Until now Mr. Seymour has been virtually unknown to the public generally, and even among musicians his fame had failed to penetrate. Yet he has written ten operas, besides various instrumental works, during more than half his 41 years.”

The New York papers had a champion of American opera in the music critic for the Times, Olin Downes. More importantly, the music director of the Met wanted to champion them too. His name was Giulio Gatti-Casazza. The Met had a lamentable history performing new operas by American composers in its early days. “In the quarter of a century of the Metropolitan’s existence, from 1883 to 1908, before Mr. Gatti-Casazza’s arrival, not a single American work had been performed.” (NY Times 6/19/1934) The Times took every opportunity to remind its readers of the potential of American, “native” operas. It created goodwill that was rewarded, by the time Seymour came along, of acceptance and excitement for new works that operagoers could call their own.

By 1934, under Gatti-Casazza’s guidance, the Met’s record of premieres had shifted, somewhat gradually, from all-European fare to an out and out embrace of American music. In June of 1934, The New York Times announced the premiere by Seymour. Newspaper articles around the country wrote about Seymour’s opera and printed photographs of the composer. The announcement in North Adams, Massachusetts printed this quotation by Seymour, “I am delighted and gratified. It is a testimony to the sincerity of the Metropolitan to promote genuine native American music.” (North Adams Transcript, 7/19/1934) Journalists began to use Seymour as proof that the tide of prejudice against American music was shifting.

An unattributed newspaper article in The New York Times to announce Seymour’s premiere, presumably by Downes, beat the drum for American works, “One of Mr. Gatti’s first acts on assuming the managership was to start a contest for a new American work, with a prize of $10,000 to go to the winner. Mr. Seymour is in California. His music has not been performed in New York before, according to available records. The Metropolitan receives many compositions of native origin from composers who have not been commissioned to write them, and The Eunuch was one of these….” (NY Times, 6/19/1934)

Some speculation as to why Seymour’s work was selected hung over the announcement of the premiere from the beginning, primarily unsettling to New York journalists. Time magazine mockingly imagines the scene, “An obscure California schoolteacher sat down at his desk one day last week, flicked on his pince-nez and proudly put his name to a contract which soon was advertised all over the U.S. In Manhattan a slender Irish girl of 20 bubbled to reporters: ‘I'm thrilled to the ears.’ From his murky backstage office at the Metropolitan Opera, big, bearded Giulio Gatti-Casazza had just announced his plans for next season.” (Time 7/2/1934) For the rest of the country, the presumption was simply that Seymour was American and talented.

Time’s piece is a strangely hateful, gossipy article that heaps skepticism on the unknown composer by attacking him personally. “The California schoolteacher was John Laurence Seymour, 41, a soft-spoken, nervous little man who lives with his mother in Sacramento, teaches dramatics at the State Junior College, wears gloves to keep his hands from sunburn, and composes operas. With little hope he submitted his latest effort to the Metropolitan. It was called The Eunuch. Henry Chester Tracy, a Los Angeles author, had written the libretto from a short story by Harrison Griswold Dwight (‘Stamboul Nights’). The Metropolitan picked John Seymour's opera for its next U.S. production and promptly renamed it In the Pasha's Garden. Gossip was that the Metropolitan judges, pessimistic about discovering a great U.S. opera, had stacked the best of the proffered scores and drawn lots. More likely, John Seymour's opera was chosen because it is brief, inexpensive to produce. It requires only one act for a pasha's wife to philander with a tenor, hide him in a chest which, thanks to a tattling eunuch, the husband orders to be buried.” (Time 7/2/1934)

The speculation in the press about Seymour’s opera did not include that fact that the composer and the great American baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, who would sing the title role of the Pasha, and to whom the published score is dedicated—To Lawrence Tibbett in admiration and gratitude—grew up together. They both attended Polytechnic High in California. Tibbett was two years older than Seymour. They didn’t know each other then, but Seymour writes in his autobiographical papers that while Tibbett was performing Pelleas et Melisande in San Francisco, Seymour met with him after the performance and interested him in his opera score, The Eunuch. At the time, Tibbett was one of the leading voices of his generation, and he had taken a starring role in nearly all of the American opera premieres in the Gatti-Casazza era. He was one of its biggest stars. Tibbett was interested in Seymour’s one act opera, and in short order, the Met promptly accepted it, and the score was published by Tin Pan Alley.

The anticipation for Seymour’s opera vacillated between a public that rooted for anything new and American, and a more skeptical, even insular, critical press in New York. Seymour was not exactly the naif that he appeared to be. Although his music had not been produced before, he had written nine operas—seven before Pasha and two after it—he graduated from Berkeley with a degree in languages, and then went abroad to study music composition with Ildebrando Pizzetti and Vincent d’Indy in Italy and France, respectively.

As the date of the premiere approached, Seymour seemed to be in high spirits and conducted interviews that gave no indication of troubles. To the United Press he said that he, “was perfectly charmed with preparations for the premiere of his one act opera at the Metropolitan next Thursday.” After describing the action of the story to the reporter, he said, “It’s tough on the lover, but the motto in writing opera is: ‘Get the tenor.’” (Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1/17/1935)

The world premiere took place on Thursday, January 24, 1935. It boasted Lawrence Tibbett as the Pasha and the debut of a 20-year old soprano, Helen Jepson, a soprano popular in her day because of her performances with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. As an opera star, she would have a rather distinguished career as well, but this was her first appearance at the Met. Another notable debut was the scenic designer, Frederick J. Keisler who would become an influential force in

modernism in the U.S. He was a Viennese architect, and articles in the press leading up to the premiere called his concept of projections and abstracted scenic elements “revolutionary”. Ettore Panizza conducted the orchestra. With only one exception, the entire cast of singers was American. This fact was another source of pride commented on in the press. The premiere performance was a benefit matinee, an annual fundraiser for the Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance, an organization that aided rural young women with educational and vocational resources. The 50-minute opera was advertised as a double bill with Puccini’s familiar La Boheme which followed it. According to the Times report, the benefit raised $4,000 for the Society and had an “exceptionally large audience.” All told, Seymour’s opera was performed three times. First, paired with La Boheme on January 24, next with Pagliacci on January 28, and finally partnered with both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on February 13 (with Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson singing roles in both Pasha and Pagliacci). (Metropolitan Opera,

The curtain rose on In the Pasha’s Garden to reveal a series of curved ramps, stairs, a low wall, and a circular platform with a canopy hanging over it. Behind the set—a large chest was its only furnishing—hung a screen 70 feet wide and 40 feet high. Onto the screen was projected three large black and white leaves. The designer described the intended effects to one of the many publications that reported on the premiere, “They overhang the action vastly and seem to brood above it. Those leaves are threatening, sinister, watchful. But…it is not a static decorative setting. The whole movement of the plot is carried on in the movement of the background, the fading out of the microscopic sections of two leaves, the lighter moments of the lovers’ happiness, to their dark retraction during the moments of the Pasha’s vengeance.” (Carlton Smith, Literary Digest, CXIX, 1/1935) Kiesler’s design was calculated to focus on perpetual movement—a spiral always spinning, relationships between objects (and between characters) that are constantly evolving.

The opera is a betrayal story which was represented with an enormous moon that grew in brightness and size as the story unfolded until it was some 20 feet in diameter, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (1/25/1935) The abstract design represented a rise in the garden of a Turkish Pasha. Many in the opera house were confused by it. “An angular, ascending ramp led up to it, and underneath was an object reminiscent of a back-yard tool shed. But it was the sky that kept the audience bewildered. On the left was a stereopticon effect in black and white, like cabbage leaves being devoured by a log of wood. On the right was a similar effect, apparently the microscopic photo of a leaf, or an X-ray of the venous system of a frog. All was very modern.” (The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/25/1935)

The action begins with Helene, the young French wife of the Pasha, inviting the attentions of a young male countryman, Etienne, in the garden at sunset. She flirts, “April’s a gracious month. What do you think? Does not the day itself stand on the brink of some avowal?” He presses her to romance, but she keeps him at a distance, “Well, don’t be vexed but, tell me, after April, what comes next?”  Etienne replies, "A bliss is flawed, when once the end of it’s foreseen.” And she counters, “Flawed? Yes; and how could I forget that, truly, when shadows haunt us here, lest, quite unruly, we seize a happiness too great?” She is about to send him away when they hear others approaching. The lovers are nearly discovered by the eunuch, Zumbul Agha. Etienne hides inside a chest in the garden kiosk, but the eunuch hears voices and refuses to leave until the Pasha can arrive and be told of his suspicions. The eunuch threatens Helene, “You can’t deny that…you cannot! You would have your Christian friends, and so by Allah, this is where it ends!” Helene commands him to be silent.

The eunuch, without telling the Pasha what is inside the chest, suggests they open it, “Now if this chest be opened, more, I think, might be confessed than I should care to speak; and it shall show who’s faithful in this house, if you would know.” The Pasha angrily threatens to put him back on the street and into poverty. The eunuch starts to leave as dinner arrives. Seeing that there is no table, the eunuch suggests they place their food upon the locked chest.

Helene asks her husband about the kiosk in which they’re sitting. The Pasha replies that it was built for a beautiful Greek woman, “My grandfather, the Vizier, he’d charm the hours for that fair slave of his…Pomegranate, he called her.” The garden is decorated with the fruit and the Pasha notes how happy she was here. He asks if Helene is happy. She replies, “I cannot say.”

Helene tells him the story of Pandora. “Zeus, in the myth, is angry, and he seeks Revenge, because the Titan stole his fire for men; and so he panders to desire and gives this girl, who’s full of ev’ry charm but brings him sorrow; ev’ry sort of harm and woe is hidden in a certain chest which, woman-like, she opens; and the rest the world knows—trouble sprang like wind from it and seeded all the earth; behind was left but one small waif.” The Pasha asks who would that be, and she replies, “Hope was its name. When she had clapped the lid, it stayed. We never see it, but it’s hid deep down; we cannot lose it, we cannot lose it, while we live.”

The Pasha decides to leave the chest closed. Helene retires for the night, but before leaving, she gives her husband the key to the chest. She calls to the eunuch who has been hiding to join the Pasha and says to him, “Who loses burdock heads must throw them far… ‘Tis well: one bears with dignity the things that are.” She leaves without knowing the fate of Etienne. The eunuch asks to have the key and take care of what he finds. Instead, the Pasha dismisses him and calls for a more trusted servant. Alone, he holds the key in his hand and walks to the chest. He listens to it and considers what to do. Shaban, his servant, arrives with a pistol. Instead, the Pasha asks him to go and get a shovel. They will bury the chest. As they dig a pit, the Pasha says, “Until this night, I have not cared to do the work of slaves; but now I think I will not shirk the weight of this. I see that all are slaves to something bigger; diggers, too, of graves.” They hoist the chest and deposit it in the hole. The Pasha blows out the garden’s candles. The sole illumination is a gigantic moon. He bows down to listen for sounds from the chest. He hears nothing but the nightingale’s song in the distance. He buries the chest and flings its key into a distant pool. The curtain falls.

The audience reaction to the opera is difficult to gauge. It certainly did not go off without a hitch. The audience was surprised by the modernist set. The costumes were also updated (the character of Helene wore a flowing, white gown with a bejeweled chiffon cape created by a Fifth Avenue couturiere; Etienne donned a blue coat and white flannels, and the Pasha wore a dinner jacket topped with a crimson fez.) Laurence Tibbett struggled, at one point, to light a cigarette onstage. He tried three times, his hand snapping more vigorously each time, until finally, a couple of weak sparks emerged. That is, I suppose, an apt metaphor for the reception in the opera house.

One newspaper wrote about the muted audience response, “At its conclusion, the audience for the most part sat silently for a minute or so. Then came a long round of curtain calls…” (Oakland Tribune, 1/25/1935) The audience applauded and gave numerous curtain calls to performers, conductor, and composer. Seymour was presented onstage with the Bispham Memorial Award. Presented by the American Opera Society of Chicago, the medal was given annually, beginning in 1921, for operas written in English. It was named after David Bispham a Wagnerian baritone from Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century who championed the performance of operas in English. Upon receiving the medal, Seymour said, onstage, “I thank first Mr. Gatti-Casazza for his sympathetic support and fine production, and Maestro Panizza for his preparation and reading of my music. If I single out one among the artists, it is not because I am ungrateful to all the others who graced my little work. To Lawrence Tibbett I am grateful especially, since I believe him to be the foremost exponent of American opera active in its behalf at the present time. And last of all, let me thank the Metropolitan audience, because we folk who choose to labor in the theatre do it all in the hope of pleasing you. Thank you!” (NY Times 1/25/1935)

Seymour must have been pleased at the amount of attention the opera gathered. The premiere was covered across the country. The Times, for example, wrote nine separate articles about the opera in the month of January 1935 alone. After opening night, papers printed follow-up reviews for each of the performances of the opera. After the January 28th performances, the Times noted that the opera was “warmly received” and that the composer joined in one of the curtain calls. It published a letter from Seymour to Gatti-Casazza, “Permit me to thank you cordially for having produced my little opera (too little, it must be admitted, for your vast stage) at the Metropolitan. The adventure of this production has introduced me to the great public which seemed to be well disposed toward In the Pasha’s Garden. I venture to predict that this little work will win the sympathy of the public more and more this season. But whether it does or not, please accept the assurance of my sincere gratitude.” (NY Times 1/29/1935). After the final performance of the opera on February 13, the Times ran the last of its articles leading up to and reviewing the work. For the first time, it added a modifier to the opera, calling it, “…Seymour’s modernistic episode of the Near East.”

Although the audiences responded, mostly, with enthusiasm, as the critics’ reviews appeared in print, it was clear that the critical reaction was decidedly less ambiguous. The set design merited mocking analogies, particularly the projections of the leaves. “Just plain silly”, "A magnified clam…uncooked tripe,”, "A slightly mildewed butterfly climbing a twig the size of a liner’s smokestack.” (New York Daily News, New York World Telegram, and New York Herald Tribune, all 1/25/1935) Time magazine wrote, “The kiosk resembled the turret of a battleship topped by an old-fashioned lampshade. To suggest the garden a lighting arrangement projected on the backdrop a horizontal stem and four big embryonic leaves. A moon was suspended in the sky like a bruised alligator pear.” (Time 2/4/1935)

And the music? The New York Times review begins by citing again Gatti-Casazza’s goodwill toward American composers, “…which he has shown year in and year out, by his production of their works. It would be particularly pleasant, under these circumstances, to agree with complimentary remarks made on the stage by Dr. Henry Hadley to Mr. Seymour after the performance, but it is quite impossible to do so. This work impresses the writer as not one of the best but one of the worst American operas produced hereabouts in years. In the Pasha’s Garden is tedious and inept to a degree. It lasts only fifty-five minutes, but that becomes a very long time.” The Times review continues by adding something that the other critics ignore: the reasons why it didn’t work.

“One listens, hoping to find something eloquent, distinctive, worthy of remark. The conclusion is forced that the work has little or no virtue for the stage, or as a musical score. It is dramatically ineffective. The music says nothing, either as melody without relation to the stage, or as means of characterizing the dramatis personae, or publishing their emotions. The style is post-Debussy with admixture of various influences. The writing for the voices is uneventful, monotonously rhymed, oblivious of laws of prosody or accentuation where treatment of the English language is concerned.” (NY Times, 1/25/1935)

Thoroughly humiliated, John Laurence Seymour returned home to Sacramento and stopped composing.

Go to Chapter 2

Left: Helen Jepson and John Laurence Seymour at the premiere

Right: Met General Manager Guilio Gatti-Casazza, circa 1935

The Metropolitan Opera, circa 1937