Monday, January 1, 2018

Brewery Trade Cards Salute (Presumably) Opera

In this post, the third on brewery trade cards devoted to opera and the theater, the focus is on Adolphus Busch, the businessman behind Anheuser Busch Brewery of St. Louis and Budweiser beer.  While clearly a fan of opera, Busch — shown here on a beer stein — was not above poking fun at the stories while marketing his beer.

The first card here, for example, is a scene from the opera Siegfried by Richard Wagner.  The hero, Siegfried tangles with a fearsome dragon named Fafner and with the help of an enchanted sword, slays him.  In the beer version, Fafner asks the young man “who stirred up thy childish mind to the murderous deed?”  Siegfried replies that “…T’was Anhauser Beer that gave me courage.”

“The Chimes of Normandy” was the English translation of a French comic opera in three acts composed by Robert Planquette with a libretto from a play by Charles Gabet.  The third act is a mishmash of mistaken identities that ends happily for all concerned.  Busch’s trade card would appear to have little to do with the actual text.

Spelled incorrectly on the card as “Fiesco,” the actual title of this French opera is “Fiesque” or “The Genoese Conspiracy.”  By composer Edouard Lalo with libretto by Charles Beauquier, the piece comes to a tragic ending with a friend killing a friend.  The character shown on the card, Gianettino, is the ruler of Genoa.  He declares himself of good humor and wants it published that “everyone may enjoy himself and drink Anhauser Beer.”

The next card, “Nanon” is something of a puzzle since I can find no opera or theater piece that corresponds to it.  An opera called “Manon” is frequently performed but there is no character named “Anna” in it.   The picture is of a cavalry solder and minstrel wooing a young tavern wench named Anna.  Most interesting, while hold her hand with his left hand, he is pouring a beer with his right and missing the glass badly.  He intones:  “Anna, for Anheuser Beer I sing my praise, I love it as I do thee all my days.”  The back of these cards usually depicted a bottle of the beer.

Tony Faust was a well known St. Louis restauranteur who not only was a great friend of Adolphus, but married his daughter.  Busch is said to have had lunch most days at Faust’s eatery,  but reportedly drank wine, disdaining his own beer.  Because of their closeness,  Adolphus named a beer for him, advertising it in multiple ways related to the Faust legend.  Naturally opera cards would be among the advertisements.   

The card at left is from the first act of Gounod’s opera in which the aging Faust has been tempted to sell his soul to the devil Méphistophélès in return for restored youth.  Rather than drinking the devil’s elixir, Faust has his hand on a glass of Tony Faust Beer, but it still trembles in his  grasp.  The Faust card a right is from the opera’s second act when Mephistopheles in the guise of a soldier is in a tavern regaling a group of soldiers and flirting with the barmaids.

While earlier trade cards extolled Anhauser and Tony Faust beers,  the card celebrating “Stradella” specifically mentions Budweiser.  Stradella was a melodramatic grand opera in five acts composed by Louis Niedermeyer.  It premiered at the Paris Opera in March 1837.  The card presumably shows the hero, Stradella, with the heroine, Leonor, somewhere in Italy contemplating a glass of Budweiser Beer and bears little or no resemblance to the opera dialogue. 

Although Adolphus Busch set the standard for issuing opera-related trade cards, he was not the only brewer.  In Louisville, Kentucky, the Schaefer-Meyer Brewing Co., as illustrated above, knew a good promotion when they saw one and set about to replicate the marketing ploy.  They selected “La Belle Helene” as their target, a farce based on the story of Helen of Troy.  In effect Schaefer-Meyer were spoofing a spoof.  In their version,  Paris is holding out a goblet of company beer to one of three scantily dressed women and speaking to an offstage “Calchas,”  a high priest of Venus.  None of it makes a lot of sense but the picture has its own appeal.

Note:   For anyone interested in opera and theater trade cards, I have devoted two prior posts to the subject,  “Budweiser Goes to the Opera,” April 13, 2013, and Off to the Opera on the Wings of Commerce,  October 24, 2014.  The beer stein bearing the likeness of Adolphus Busch recently sold at an online auction for $2,125.00.

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