Over the centuries political authorities have frequently feared the power of operas and subdued them through censorship. Given the perceived ability of music and words to convey powerful political propaganda, to move emotions, and possibly to stir people to action, opera has long been viewed as a potentially subversive force requiring censorship controls wherever political regimes have been authoritarian.
Concerns that have led to censorship of the theater have also generally applied to opera. Indeed, there has been more censorship of the stage than of the printed word. Stage productions are unique in gathering together in public places large numbers of people, who may be mobilized for concerted action (whereas the printed word is usually consumed alone and in private). Live performances are more powerful in impact than readings of the same words. Furthermore, stage performances are accessible to the illiterate and usually feared poor, while print often is not.
Fear of Opera
Censorship of opera, an art form that originated in the seventeenth century, developed early. It began around 1770 in Austria and in 1737 in Great Britain. The mid-nineteenth century European revolutions especially convinced political authorities of the need for strict opera censorship, as outbreaks in both France and Belgium were partly blamed on opera crowds. The Belgian revolt against Dutch rule, for example, was widely attributed to mobs aroused by an August, 1830, performance of Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828). This opera portrayed a medieval rebellion against Spanish domination in Naples. Belgians who attended the opera in Brussels streamed into the streets, howling “Down with the Dutch!” and tearing down perceived symbols of Dutch oppression soon after the singers had cried out: “Let us unite and throw out the strangers, with one blow, save our country’s freedom.”
Fears of opera engendered by mid-nineteenth century revolutions were greatly reinforced in politically fragmented Italy, where opera houses became the centers of demonstrations demanding unity and independence. Audiences were often inspired by Giuseppe Verdi’s operas—which, though set in foreign lands and remote times to avoid censorship, were nevertheless routinely understood by nationalistic Italian audiences as appeals for liberation from Austrian and papal tyranny. One Florentine censor dejectedly reported that the “perplexity of the censor is due to the public reaction” which gives performances an interpretation “over and above their literal meaning.” When the English author Charles Dickens observed the same phenomenon at a Genoa opera, he concluded that the petty Italian tyrannies had created a situation in which “there is nothing else of a public nature at which [the Italians] are allowed to express the least disapprobation” and “perhaps they are resolved to make the most of this opportunity.”
The Nature of Opera Censorship
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...
(The entire section is 1,920 words.)