Death from heartbreak, instead of suicide: What censorship did to opera | Culture

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It didn’t even last 24 hours on stage. In 1832, The King Amuses Himself — a play by Victor Hugo — premiered in Paris. It was banned the next day. It couldn’t be performed in France, but the text was still published. It ended up in the hands of Giuseppe Verdi, a famous Italian composer known for his operas. To him, it seemed like the perfect plot for his next project: Rigoletto.

The Italian censors tried to prevent it from being performed, but Verdi proved to be a great negotiator. His opera premiered successfully and began touring theaters throughout Europe… except for France. And not because of censorship: this time, it was Victor Hugo himself who didn’t consent to it being performed, while his original work was still prohibited.

How did the opera get past censorship, when it utilized the same script of Hugo’s banned play? Well, this was thanks to the genius of Giuseppe Verdi.

Two centuries later, Rigoletto continues to raise controversy: the last production premiered in Spain, directed by Miguel del Arco. However, it was booed at its premier at Madrid’s Royal Theater, in December 2023. The production is now in Bilbao and will later stop in Seville.

This work by Verdi is a great example of how opera was censored and how a composer’s intelligence managed to outwit the authorities. That’s why it’s a central part of the Opera and Censorship course, taught at the Royal Theater by musicologist and music critic Mario Muñoz.

“When the censors found out that Verdi was trying to make an opera that was about how the king of France tries to sleep with whoever he wants, they told the composer and the librettist that they had chosen very poorly and that they should look for another work that didn’t question the established institutions and the king. Above all, they didn’t want a diplomatic problem with France,” Muñoz explains.

There were many elements of the opera that scandalized the censors, but there was one scene that made their hair stand on end: a king raping a woman. The negotiations were very tough and Verdi made many concessions. He demoted the king and made him a duke. He couldn’t be French, either, so they chose an Italian duchy that was already extinct by then: Mantua. The tug of war was constant, until only the main obstacle remained: the rape scene. When Verdi decided to remove it, the opera went ahead.

“The funny thing,” the musicologist notes, “is that it’s recently become known that under no circumstances did Verdi intend to portray that scene… but he pretended that he was and used it as a tool to negotiate and get even more out of the censors.”

Verdi knew very well what he was doing when he chose The King Amuses Himself as the plot for his opera. He didn’t want to entertain the audience with pretty music, but rather give them something to think about. Joan Matabosch — the artistic director at Madrid’s Royal Theater — explains that “it’s a tremendously uncomfortable work. If you want to understand what it says, of course. If we believe that watching Rigoletto is like humming La donna è mobile, that’s absolutely not the case. By not taking the time to understand this opera, you betray it. And you betray Verdi in the process.”

“It’s important to note how cruel the censorship of the time was towards the opera. The premiere was as controversial as expected, with numerous viewers complaining that the topic dishonored the glorious institution, while the critics were baffled.”

If Verdi stood out for his ability to negotiate with the censors, what the great Gioachino Rossini was good at was avoiding them entirely. But he also had some headaches, for example, with La Cenerentola (Cinderella), which Muñoz also analyzes: “It’s the daughter of direct censorship. Rossini was going to do another work, but the censorship prevented it, so he had to choose [the story by Charles] Perrault quickly.” And even a seemingly harmless children’s story had the censors sink their teeth in. “They considered the shoe scene too erotic, because it forced the woman’s ankle to be shown. So, they changed the shoe for a bracelet,” the musicologist adds.

The mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, holding the bracelet in the legendary production of ‘La Cenerentola.’

When the nobility was criticized, the piece was censored. If something appeared that could seem erotic, it was censored. If the religious authorities considered any content to be dangerous, it was censored. At face value, these may seem like the great taboo themes in the history of opera, but according to Muño, ideological issues were less critical than another factor: “I think what was penalized was the individual’s loss of control. Not so much what the author spoke about, but the fact that he spoke about whatever he wanted… that can be the fuse for critical thinking to spread.”

But while control was imposed over words, the composers’ most powerful weapon wasn’t taken into consideration by the censors. Such was the case of Dido and Aeneas (1689), an opera by Henry Purcell. For the morals of the time, suicide was an unforgivable act that forever condemned the soul of the person who committed it. The censors weren’t going to allow this to be portrayed on stage, so Purcell didn’t make Dido kill herself. Rather, she dies of heartbreak.

“Deaths out of love were the most useful things in the history of opera, because they allowed for the listeners to be absolved,” the musicologist explains. But Purcell didn’t want to be left without telling — at least in some way — the story as it originally was. So what does a composer do when they’re not allowed to express something in words? Well, they can express it through music.

“As she dies, a continuous descending musical staircase plays, to explain that she’s eternally condemned to hell. One thing is what the text tells you, and another is what the music tells you.

Muñoz notes that something else emerges while analyzing the history of opera: censorship usually ends up benefiting the work. “In general, it doesn’t usually have a negative effect, because when censorship tightens the parameters of a work, in the end, the artist manages to turn the subject around to say what they want, but in a different way. So, on many occasions, what the censors have managed to do is turn top-notch operas into masterpieces.”

It’s no coincidence that Rigoletto, La Cenerentola, Tristan und Isolde or Salome — examples of great operatic works marked by censorship — were created in the 19th and early-20th centuries. “At first, [censorship] wasn’t so problematic, because opera was born at the end of the 16th century and was totally linked to power. But when issues of political, religious and individual freedom were mixed with art, that’s when everything was at its worst, which was in the 19th and early-20th centuries. That’s when censorship had the greatest power.”

And today, does it still exist? “Of course not,” Joan Matabosch responds emphatically, from her post at the Royal Theater. But what about self-censorship? Can a scandal encourage a producer or a stage director to cut a work by themselves, for fear of the public’s reaction?

The recent production of Rigoletto — with Miguel del Arco as stage director — caused a stir at its premiere in Madrid. Some spectators booed the performance; the criticism spread to social media. While there were many positive comments, the boos at the premiere stood out.

“It’s symptomatic that when a current stage director decides to truly explain — with all his force — what Verdi denounces in Rigoletto, there are still those who accuse the show of the same thing that they accused Verdi of at the time: of depravity, of being in bad taste and of being inappropriate for a glorious institution. This shows that the issue is still very topical and continues to hinder us,” Matabosch says.

Del Arco — to whom the criticism was directed — acknowledges that he tries to block out the comments, although something always ends up getting to him. “They’ve said ferocious things to me. A lady wrote to me saying that she will never forgive me because I ruined a wonderful afternoon of Verdi’s music, and that for no reason should I bring the outside world to the stage.”

The director doesn’t censor himself, but he does recognize that all that pressure from the public can affect a theater or a stage director with less experience. “Yes, it can affect you. I may be speaking very casually, but it hasn’t been easy for me to withstand all the media pressure,” he admits.

The baritone Étienne Dupuis, during a performance of 'Rigoletto,' which premiered at Madrid’s Royal Theater in December 2023.
The baritone Étienne Dupuis, during a performance of ‘Rigoletto,’ which premiered at Madrid’s Royal Theater in December 2023.Javier del Real

This isn’t the first time that he’s faced this kind of pressure. Back in 2016, his operetta — ¡Cómo está Madriz! — was targeted by a boycott by members of the public. “I remember that, when we [members of the production] went to Oviedo — where no one had seen it yet — we found a demonstration and banners that said: ‘If you’re a Christian, don’t go to see this performance.’ Sometimes, you feel the need to say: ‘why are you spending your time protesting something if you haven’t seen it? Come in and then we’ll discuss it.’ That attitude has a lot to do with censorship,” he notes.

But just as the opera censors achieved the opposite of what they were trying to do, these scandals — according to Del Arco — also have a positive effect. “Sometimes, they come in handy. With Rigoletto, we’ve appeared everywhere. Suddenly, a minority thing like opera experiences a brutal media explosion at a time when it’s difficult to gain a foothold. Because of a scandal, you become moderately noticeable. And that’s good. It means that you haven’t gone unnoticed.”

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