Except perhaps in nineteenth century Italy, where opera was exceptionally important, opera censorship has rarely approached the level of stringency applied to the spoken drama. The first of several reasons is the higher cost of staging operas. Operas have frequently required state patronage and subsidies; under such conditions formal censorship has often not been required. Also, the amount of overtly political idea that can be conveyed within the framework of an opera libretto is severely limited. Finally, although the sensual power of music can add strength to the power of words, it can also overwhelm them. Thus, a play by Alexandre Dumas, fils (1852), was banned by the same nineteenth century English censor who simultaneously allowed the production of La Traviata (1853), Verdi’s opera based on the same play. The censor explained that if there were “a musical version of a piece it makes a difference, for the story is then subsidiary to the music and singing.” On the other hand, in Italy, where opera reigned supreme, a reverse logic appears to have applied: Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in maschera (1859), based on the 1792 assassination of Swedish king Gustav III, was forbidden by Roman censors until Verdi changed its setting to colonial Boston; however, ordinary plays on the same subject were allowed.
Opera censorship has usually reflected the particular concerns and fears of authoritarian regimes and the apparatus of repressive governmental controls has therefore fundamentally shaped the manner in which composers and librettists have written. Thus, in nineteenth century Europe, opera material challenging established government policy had to be suppressed; in such conditions most operas were set in remote and often imaginary pasts, focusing on highly romanticized events. In nineteenth century Italy, which was divided into a number of small states dominated by German-speaking Austria and the papacy, virtually all overt references to religion, nationalism, or anti-German sentiments were forbidden. Opera librettists naturally avoided politically censorable subject matter.