‘the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings’: meaning and origin

Of U.S. origin, the colloquial phrase the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings means:
– the outcome of a situation cannot be assumed;
– there is still time for a situation to change, especially for the better.

The earliest occurrence of this phrase that I have found is from A cakewalk this time, by Sam Blair, published in The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) of Wednesday 10th March 1976:

Despite his obvious allegiance to the Red Raiders, Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter was the picture of professional objectivity when the Aggies rallied for a 72-72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals. “Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan, “this Morgan, the league information director, is going to be a tight one after all.” “Right,” said Ralph. “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

This phrase may be an adaptation (perhaps with allusion to the stereotype of a large female soprano singing the final aria of an opera) of the earlier phrase church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings, and variants—these are the earliest occurrences that I have found, both dating from 1976:

1-: From Southern Words and Sayings (Jackson, Mississippi: Printed by The Office Supply Company, 1976), by Fabia Rue Smith and Charles Rayford Smith:

Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings – It ain’t over yet.

2-: From Courthouse candor prizes awarded, by Larry Neal, Star-Telegram Writer, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas) of Saturday 3rd January 1976:

Its [sic] time again for the 2nd Sort-of-Annual Tarrant County Good Journalism League awards for candor in county government.
[…]
The awards go to those officials who, in the course of the last year or two, prove to be the most quotable.
[…]
Commissioner Jerry Mebus […] took an honorable mention for the quotes he dreamed up and never used.
Mebus has been waiting almost a full year for the right situation so he can drop one of his best. “Don’t leave the church until the fat lady sings.”

In turn, church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings may be an adaptation of the earlier phrase church ain’t out until the singing is over, and variants—these are the earliest occurrences that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From The Political Outlook. Opinions of Leading Papers, published in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Thursday 17th October 1872:

[From the Cincinnati Volksblatt.]

It appears from the last dispatches that Hendricks, the Democratic candidate for Governor in Indiana, is elected. This gives the Liberal cause a new impetus. Greeley will certainly receive more votes in Indiana than Hendricks, and with Indiana, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and the South (with the exception of South Carolina and Mississippi) his election would be sure.
As long as the organ is playing church is not out. With Indiana and New York Greeley can spare Ohio and Pennsylvania.
We see no reason whatever to despair of Greeley’s election. But even if Greeley, contrary to our expectations, should be beaten, the final success of the Liberal movement is sure beyond a doubt. Its principles are correct, and will triumph sooner or later. Fremont was also beaten in 1856, and the young Republican party triumphed in 1860. A defeat of the Liberals in this year makes their victory in 1876 all the surer. The dissolution of the old parties is a mere question of time.

2-: From The Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 9th July 1884:

“Church isn’t out until they’ve got through singing,” expresses the present feeling among General Butler’s admirers in Massachusetts. They will be disappointed if he does not get the nomination, just as the friends of Mr. Bayard, Mr. McDonald, Mr. Randall, Mr. Carlisle and several others will feel sorry if the favorite son of their particular State does not get it.

3-: From the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser (Buffalo, New York) of Friday 4th December 1885:

At the pigeon shoot at Manning’s Park Suspension Bridge, Thanksgiving day, William Scheibert of Buffalo and Captain Ritter of Welland shot a match at five tame birds, Scheibert winning by one bird. Captain Ritter, not being satisfied with the result, forthwith challenged Scheibert to shoot a match for $100 at fifty tame pigeons at La Salle in two weeks. Scheibert accepted, a forfeit was deposited in the hands of Geo. Barker, and Canada and Buffalo will meet at the time and place mentioned, the Captain remarking that “church ain’t out until they’re done singing.”

4-: From Base Ball Notes, published in The Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Thursday 30th June 1892:

Well, church is not out until singing is over. Play ball!

5-: From The Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Monday 4th July 1892:

This from the Birmingham Age-Herald: “This morning after the Lambs took first place The Chattanooga Times said ‘church is never out until after the singing was over.’ This is a fact, and the Lambs’ choir—the Advertiser—should change the tune from ‘Hallelujah’ to ‘Not Quite, but Very Near It.’”

6-: From Notes (about baseball), published in The Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Saturday 16th July 1892:

Again it is pertinent to remark that church isn’t out until the singing is over.

7-: From The Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Monday 3rd July 1893—about the contest for county back tax collector:

That old and experienced player of games political, Judge Hugh Whiteside, […] continued sounding the praises and urging the appointment of Col. Ed. Watkins. When Judge Whiteside left for the mountain last night he was not exactly confident his man would win, but to a supporter of one of the other candidates, who good naturedly taunted him with defeat, he as good naturedly replied: “Church isn’t out until singing is over,” implying that he had by no means given up the fight.

8-: From the Scranton Times (Scranton, Pennsylvania) of Tuesday 22nd August 1893:

REPUBLICAN OR TRIBUNE.

The local representatives of the national “Calamity Party” will assemble today to place a county ticket in the political field. It will be a convention of Republicans of course, but they will divide on an issue that rarely finds standing ground in the convention of parties. This is purely and simply whether The Tribune or The Republican will control the elections of the party in the coming county fight. […]
At this writing the Tribune forces seem to have the advantage, but there is no telling what changes may be wrought by the Republican supporters under the able and strategic management and generalship of Congressman Scranton. He is so full of political resources, that victory is never out of his reach till the battle is finished, and the trumpet of victory is echoed by the joyous paeans of the victors. […]
Church is never out till the choir stops singing, and those who were exuberantly jubilant last night, on account of the encouraging prospects of the Tribune’s victory, may meet with a corresponding disappointment when the victorious eagles of the Republican scream in triumph over the heads of the vanquished.

9-: From The Fort Worth Gazette (Fort Worth, Texas) of Friday 17th August 1894:

Lower Rate to Washington.

The impression is still strong among railroad passenger agents that there will be further reductions in the rate to the Washington encampment of the Knights of Pythias.
“Church is never out till the people get through singing,” said one of them this morning, and all of them talk as if they understood the language of this parable.

10-: From The Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Wednesday 7th November 1894:

HERE AT HOME, IN HAMILTON!
Evans and Brown Carry the County by 2,300.
Wards Heretofore Democratic Turned Topsy Turvy by the Republican Rush.
FOSTER V. BROWN CARRIES EVERY WARD IN THE CITY.
And Evans Carries All Wards But the Sixth, Which Gives Turney Meagre Majority of 13.
Even the First and Sixth Forget Their Democratic Allegiance and Go Bag and Baggage for the Repubs.
IT WAS A CLEAN SWEEP FROM END TO END.
The Entire Republican Ticket Elected in the County by Big Majorities—Democrats Scratched the Ticket as They Never Scratched Before—The Colored Brother Was In It to a Very Marked Extent—The Republicans Rejoice, But the Democrats Insist That Church Is Not Out Until Singing Is Over.

11-: From Seen from the Scorers’ Box, about baseball, published in The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Sunday 5th May 1895:

Church is not out until the last hymn is sung.

12-: From one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column Chat, published in The Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Monday 20th April 1896:

Steady now, you boomers; mind you church is not out until singing is over, and we are just getting in good voice. Do not “shoo” at Pros. Perity. He is strange and naturally timid. Please let him get better acquainted before you tender your offerings of “good things.”

13-: From the New-York Tribune (New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 2nd May 1896:

When asked what he [= Chauncey M. Depew] thought of the result of the conventions in Vermont, Illinois and Georgia, he replied that he could no longer refuse to admit that McKinley looked very much like a winner.
“Will you withdraw the name of Governor Morton?” Mr. Depew was asked.
He replied quietly. “I am just writing my nominating speech which I expect to deliver at St. Louis for Governor Morton.”
“Do you think the Governor still has a chance?”
“Where there is life there is hope. It doesn’t do to count on anything as a certainty until all is over. Church is never out until they stop singing. I admit that Major McKinley looks like the winner, but I am with Morton as long as he is to be considered as a candidate.”

14-: From The Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois) of Wednesday 6th May 1896 and from the Illinois State Register (Springfield, Illinois) of Friday 8th May 1896:

“Will McKinley be nominated?” was asked of Chauncey M. Depew. “As for that,” replied Chauncey, “church is never out until the last hymn is sung.”

15-: From the Stark County Democrat (Canton, Ohio) of Thursday 14th May 1896:

Our Stark county Democrats must not get the idea into their heads that there is no future for them but despair, and no sequel but surrender. We have an even chance this year for a fair deal in politics if only they will be true to themselves. The clear thing for the Democrats to do is to nominate a good county ticket, to stand by it, to live by it, or to die by it. We must retain our organization in the county and work unceasingly until the melancholy days of November come around. Remember Chauncey Depew’s prophetic words, that church is never out until the last hymn is sung.

16-: From The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Sunday 17th May 1896:

Dr. Depew is said to have remarked the other day, in reference to Gov. Morton’s chances at St. Louis, that “church is never out until the singing is over.” When the singing is over and church is out at St. Louis, the doctor will wonder to himself what he went to that church for.

17-: From The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of Wednesday 26th August 1896—interestingly, the phrase is characterised as “an old saying”:

National Committeeman Kerens, who hails from the state of Uncle Dick Bland, Vest, Cockrell and the gifted William J. Stone, is another of the optimists. He thinks the silver craze is already visibly dying down. He reports the campaign of education getting on finely in his part of the country. He has hopes of his own state. “There’s an old saying that church is never out until they quit singing,” he says. “Every day shows that the fight is far from being over in Missouri.”

18-: From The Evening Post (Charleston, South Carolina) of Monday 11th July 1898:

C. P. Barrett, the noted postoffice defrauder[,..] goes to prison at last, after having eluded it for several years. […]
[…]
Barrett was seen at the jail this morning by an Evening Post reporter. […]
He received the reporter pleasantly and said he had not yet given up the fight. “You know,” said he, “church is never out until the singing is over.”

19-: From The Age-Herald (Birmingham, Alabama) of Wednesday 17th August 1898:

With a dull, sickening thud the Cincinnati Reds yesterday dropped out of first place and are now watching the champion Bostons making their way pennantward.
But Buck Ewing’s braves are made of fighting stuff and the admirers of the Bean Eaters should not for a moment lose sight of the fact that the Porkopolis representatives are still on earth. The old saying of “Church isn’t out till singing’s over,” is applicable to base ball as well as camp meetings.

20-: From The Daily New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) of Monday 20th February 1899 and from The Semi-Weekly New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) of Wednesday 22nd February 1899:

Senator Hanna, who is in New York, says that he regards an extra session as improbable, although the Democrats would like to force the Republicans into one. Still “church is never out until the congregation quits singing.”

21-: From an article about the forthcoming trial of two men accused of train robbery, Lewis Nigh and Jake Fegley—article published in The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) of Tuesday 30th May 1899:

The sentiment of the community against Nigh and Fegley is not so strong as it was and both are becoming more confident every day that they will soon be free again.
“Church is never over till the doxology is said,” said Nigh, through the bars. “We ain’t taking much part in the prayers and sermon, but wait till the doxology!”

22-: From the Evening Journal (Wilmington, Delaware) of Friday 2nd June 1899:

Our esteemed contemporary, the Every Evening, seems to be very solicitous about the lack of life in the present campaign. Under the caption of “A Quiet Campaign” it says:
“The present city campaign is one of the quietest and most uneventful ever known in Wilmington. The election takes place one week from to-morrow, and there are five sets of tickets in the field, and yet there is not a ripple of political excitement on the surface.”
Don’t worry, neighbor. As they say, “Church isn’t out till the choir’s done singing.” There may yet be ginger enough injected into the campaign to send even the watery blood of your old fossilated anatomy coursing at a gallop.

23-: From this advertisement for the E. B. Frank Dry Goods Co., published in The Daily Express (San Antonio, Texas) of Sunday 11th February 1900:

Church Is Not Over
Until They Quit Singing.

Our February sale is not over until the last day of February. We have made up our mind to sell more in February than any other month; just because February is the shortest and dullest month of the year. We must have room for spring goods now in transit. Being cash buyers, we must raise money to pay for our spring stock. We throw profits to the winds this month. If you need the goods and our prices are right, we see no reason why you should not help us out.

24-: From an article about an internal fight within the Republican Party, published in The Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) of Friday 24th January 1902—Harmon Liveright Remmel (1852-1927) was then the Chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of Arkansas:

Mr. Remmel was seen at his hotel, but […] desired not to talk for publication. He did say, however, that “strong friends had rallied to his support, that he was not abashed, and that he felt confident,” jocularly remarking that “services were never over until the benediction was pronounced.”

25-: From this letter, published in The Woodbury Daily Times (Woodbury, New Jersey) of Wednesday 12th March 1902:

DENIAL.

Woodbury, N. J., March 12. 1902.
Editors Times.
Dear Sirs:—I see in one of our local papers this week, that I am accused of throwing my game to Pancoest, in the pool tournament now going on at Leppee’s. I wish to state right here that this statement is radically wrong. I will admit that I was forty points ahead of my opponent at one stage of the game, but in the game of pool we never know who the winner will be until the last ball is pocketed, as you know the old saying is “Church isn’t out until they get through singing.”
R. W. Mulford.