Opera and Censorship

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 150

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.

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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

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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

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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.

Nineteenth Century Italy

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No doubt the height of modern opera censorship occurred in nineteenth century Italy. Even in operas that were clearly apolitical, censors generally forbade use of such words as “conspiracy,” “fatherland,” “liberty,” “revolution,” “slavery,” “tyranny,” and even “Italy.” The results of such censorship were often ludicrous. For example, Milanese censors forced the heroine of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Padilla (1841) to die of a “surfeit of joy” instead of committing suicide. Roman censors forced the heroine in Gioacchino Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (1813) to substitute the nonsensical “Think of your spouse!” for the original “Think of your country!”

Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836) is about the Catholic slaughter of Protestants in sixteenth century France. When it was performed in Rome in 1864, it was renamed Renato di Crowenwald and was rewritten to depict a struggle between powerful Dutch families in the early seventeenth century, with no hint of religious strife. In Austria the same opera was allowed only after it was renamed the Ghibellines of Pisa and altered so its libretto featured thirteenth century Italians singing a sixteenth century hymn by Martin Luther. In France the opera was allowed in the 1830’s in Paris, but was banned from Protestant towns. Later, in Bolshevist Russia it was transformed into an opera about the failed 1825 Decembrist revolution against czarist autocracy.

Continental Opera

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In the German-dominated but multinational Habsburg Empire Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) was allowed only through the personal intervention of Emperor Joseph II, and his The Magic Flute (1791) was forbidden in 1795 as revolutionary propaganda. In the nineteenth century operatic depictions of conflict among ethnic groups and nationalities were strictly forbidden in the empire, and Hungarian, Polish, and Czech operas could not make overt appeals to nationalism. For this reason the great Czech medieval religious hero and martyr Jan Hus could not be depicted on the Czech stage during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century (except during a short-lived revolution). Gioacchino Rossini’s opera William Tell (1829) is the story of a revolt by the medieval Swiss against their Austrian overlords. Before it could be performed in the Habsburg Empire, its setting had to be shifted to Scotland, with English oppressors replacing Rossini’s Austrians and Scotland’s national hero, William Wallace, replacing Tell. In revolutionary and imperial France, as regime succeeded regime after 1789, all operas savoring of royalty were initially banned until 1815. After Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and the monarchy was restored, all mention of Napoleon was forbidden. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ text for Antonio Salieri’s opera Tarare (1787) had to be repeatedly changed as its hero transmuted from absolute monarch to republican ruler and then to constitutional monarch to keep up with the political winds.

In Nazi Germany, not only were all operas viewed as politically unacceptable banned (thus Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, 1925, could not be performed for ideological reasons, a fate it also temporarily encountered in Soviet Russia), but all works by Jewish artists were forbidden—even Franz Werfel’s German translations of the libretti to Verdi’s operas could not be performed because of Werfel’s Jewish ancestry. In Spain during the rule of Francisco Franco, Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867) could not be performed apparently because it attacked the Roman Catholic church, one of its heros was a fervent advocate of liberty, and it was set in sixteenth century Spain.

Russia and Eastern Bloc Countries

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In nineteenth century Russia, ruled by a brutal czarist autocracy supported by the Russian Orthodox church, no czar or ecclesiastic could be criticized or even depicted upon the opera stage (czars from the pre-Romanov dynasties could appear in spoken dramas, but, it was explained to composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that “it would be unseemly” if the czar of any dynasty were to “suddenly sing a ditty” in an opera). Rimsky- Korsakov’s final opera, The Golden Cockerel (1907), an allegorical satire on the decay of the Russian autocracy was held up by censorship for two years, and then could be presented only in a mutilated version. Near its end, the opera’s original text had the chorus sing: “What will the new dawn bring?” The censors changed the ominous “new dawn” to a “white dawn.”

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, all favorable references to Russia’s czarist heritage were effaced from opera. One typical result was that Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Czar (1836) was renamed Ivan Susanin; it was rewritten so that instead of sacrificing for the founder of the Romanov dynasty (who disappeared entirely from the text), the opera’s hero instead gives his life for the cause of Russian nationalism. Along similar politically directed lines, Giacamo Puccini’s Tosca (1900) was performed under the new regime under the title The Battle for the Commune. In a 1925 Moscow performance, Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) became a story about a communist woman who wins over a counterrevolutionary soldier and later transfers her affections to a Polish wrestler.

In Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, Bedrich Smetana’s popular 1863 nationalist opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, which celebrated medieval Czech resistance to brutal German occupiers could not be performed until 1866 under Habsburg rule. After the Soviet Union’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it disappeared from the stage for sixteen years. In China planned performances of Puccini’s Turandot (unfinished at his death in 1924) were canceled in Shanghai and Beijing in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre of democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The cancellation was apparently due to the fact that the opera’s tale of cruelty, torture, and executions is set in a legendary imperial China.

Perhaps no opera composer in history suffered more, both professionally and personally from censorship than Verdi. His private correspondence is filled with bitter diatribes directed against it. He termed the changes imposed by the censorship in Naples on Un Ballo in maschera an “artistic murder.” When La Traviata was mangled by Roman censors—who wanted the character of the courtesan heroine Violetta to be “purified”—Verdi stormed that they had “ruined the sense of the drama. They made La Traviata pure and innocent. Thanks a lot! Thus, they ruined all the situations, all the characters. A whore must remain a whore. If the sun were to shine at night, it wouldn’t be night any more. In short, they don’t understand anything!”


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There are no adequate general studies of opera censorship. Sections on opera censorship in nineteenth century Europe can, however, be found in Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Censorship of the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth Century Europe (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989); David Kimbell, Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Anthony Arblaster, Viva la Liberta! Politics in Opera (New York: Verso, 1992); Arnold Perris, Music as Propaganda (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985); and John Rosselli, The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984). Walter Rubsamen’s “Music and Politics in the Risorgimento,” Italian Quarterly 51 (Spring-Summer, 1961), is informative on this key period of opera censorship. See also articles on censorship in dictionaries of opera.

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