From The Traditional Tune Archive
Bisbee, Jasper "Jep." "The Opera Reel (with calls)." Edison 51278. 78 RPM. 1923.
Bayard (1981) did not find it in any collection older than the early 19th century (however, earlier printings did exist--see below). According to Linscott (1939) the tune "was fitted for a contra dance performed on the stage." Bronner (1987) thinks there may be stage origins for the tune on the strength of his observation that "besides producing light operas, popular theaters and chautauquas often did vernacular versions or even parodies of opera," though he admits the tune sounds Scottish or Irish. Apparently as another speculation, he also suggests the "operatic" triplet pattern in the third part "probably suggested the name of 'Opera Reel' in its early forms." There is also a rumor floating about the the reel is made up of strains from different French operas, although this appears to be completely erroneous. Tony Parkes and Steve Woodruff (1980) state the tune was an early 19th century American melody likely modeled on the multi-part Irish and Scottish reels of the 18th century and was particularly popular in the 1850's. Indeed, the "Opera Reel" appears in the 1823 music manuscript book of H. Canfield (Hartford, Conn.), A Choice Selection of Flute Melodies.
Despite the tune's profound association with New England contra dancing, an American claim of provenance (or even partial provenance) is not supported by the evidence. "Opera Reel" was published in Dublin in 1795 in a gentleman's literary journal called Walker's Hibernian, and around the same time by Dublin publisher T. Cooke in Tracy’s selection of the present favorite country dances (c. 1795). Anne Loughran and Vic Gammon's Sussex Tune Book (English Folk Dance and Song Society, 1982) contains what may be a cognate or ancestral melody under the title "The Duke of Cornwall's Reel," sourced from a manuscript music book compiled by William Aylmore of West Wittering (Sussex, England). Aylemore was a clarinet player whose book contains dance, military and religious music and is dated 1796 in one place and 1818 in another.
In New Hampshire the tune was used for the dance Boston Fancy or Lady Walpole's Reel, as well as the dance also called The Opera Reel . Directions for the dance were printed in
H.G.O. Washburn's The Ball-Room Manual of Contra Dances and Social Cotillons (Belfast, Maine, 1863):
OPERA REAL. 80 Steps.
Note. – Form sets of five or six couples only in each. First couple balance, down the centre to foot of set--second couple balance, down to foot of set--four right and left at foot--both couples up the centre, first couple down outside and remain
at the foot.
DRAPER'S GARDEN full Score(s) and Annotations and Past Featured Tunes
T:The Opera Reel
DD/D/ DG FEFA|DD/D/ DF EDEF|DD/D/ DG FEFA|BdAF E2E2|
dDdD dAFD|dDdD dAFD|dDdD dgfe|dDdD dAFD|BdAF E2E2|
afaf gege|fdfd ecBA|afaf gege|fbac d2d2|
Ddfd Eebg|Aceg fdfd|Ddfd Eege|fbac d2d2||