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Opera and censorship: A history of bans and forced rewrites

Political and moral agendas have seen some of history’s greatest composers put under pressure to change their work.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

8 June 2014 at 5.57pm | Comment on this article

Like most art forms, opera has had its (un)fair share of censorship. Whether alarmed by onstage sex and violence or suspecting seditious sentiments (almost always imagined), censors have had their red pens at the ready from the very beginnings of opera through into the 20th century. We take a look at just four operatic masterpieces subjected to censorship.

Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven – first performed at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, in 1805

Beethoven’s only opera first emerged less than two decades after the French Revolution. Censors saw the opera’s triumphant celebration of liberty as directly inspired by the storming of the Bastille and cancelled the premiere – until it emerged that the Empress was a fan of the story, and a new premiere of 20 November 1805 was promptly arranged. Just days earlier, on 12 November, Napoleon’s troops had peacefully occupied Vienna and many of the court and others interested in Beethoven’s music had fled the city. The opera opened to an house full of non-German speaking French troops (in a time before surtitles). Beethoven withdrew the piece after just three performances. He went on to make significant revisions to the opera until 1818, later describing it as ‘the one that cost me the worst birth-pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason it is the one most dear to me’.

Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti – first uncensored performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1835

Donizetti planned his adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller’s Maria Stuart as a vehicle for his favourite leading lady of the time, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis. He and his young librettist cut the cast down to six, introduced a love interest and made a thrilling dramatic centrepiece out of Schiller's (entirely fictional) showdown between the two queens. But after a successful dress rehearsal at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the King of Naples unexpectedly banned all further performances – perhaps because his queen was a descendent of the Stuarts, or because the prospect of one queen calling another ‘vil bastarda’ was considered a step too far.

The composer responded to the ban by revising the work as Buondelmonte, reorienting the tale around a character from Dante’s Inferno. When it eventually hit the San Carlo stage – using the same sets that had been created for Maria Stuarda – to no one’s surprise, it was not a success. The celebrated soprano Maria Malibran championed a new production at La Scala, Milan, where the opera briefly became a succèss de scandale, but it was soon banned. It largely fell from the repertory, only to be rediscovered in the 1950s.

Un ballo in maschera by Giuseppe Verdi – first performed at the Teatro Apollo, Rome, in 1859

Close to the deadline for his new commission for Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Verdi had decided to recycle Eugène Scribe’s 1833 libretto Gustave III, sprucing it up with his librettist Antonio Somma. The story, about the real-life assassination of an 18th-century European king, caught the attention of the Neapolitan censors, who immediately insisted the king be fictionalized, demoted to a duke and removed to a more distant past. Verdi and Somma capitulated. But when Verdi arrived for rehearsals he was presented with yet further demands: the heroine was to be made the sister, not the wife of the king/duke’s secretary, and the assassination was to happen offstage. Verdi absolutely refused and relations quickly broke down, leading Verdi to withdraw the Naples premiere altogether. Verdi didn’t entirely get his way, however. For the opera’s eventual premiere in Rome he still had to replace King Gustav with Riccardo, fictional governor of Boston.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dmitry Shostakovich – first performed at the Malïy Opernïy Theatre, Leningrad, in 1934

Shostakovich’s second opera was an immediate critical and popular success, and was celebrated as the first truly Soviet masterpiece. In the following two years it was performed nearly two hundred times in Moscow and Leningrad, and was exported around the world. On 26 January 1936 Stalin and a group of Soviet dignitaries attended a performance at the Bolshoi. Two days later an unremittingly damning report appeared in the government newspaper Pravda. In the editorial ‘Muddle instead of Music’, the author decried the opera as petty-bourgeois, ‘a confused stream of sound’ that ‘tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music’. It changed the landscape of music in the Soviet Union, establishing a new manifesto under which composers such as Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev, previously successful, were suddenly in fear for their lives. Lady Macbeth would not be performed again until 1962, in a significantly sanitized version, and not in its fully rehabilitated form until the late 1970s.

Discover more about the history of opera and composers’ battles with censors in the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, at the V&A Museum 30 September 2017–25 February 2018.

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