Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Giacomo Rossini, The Barber of Seville

Italian Opera as an Industry

The Teatro San Cassiano in 1637: a digital reconstruction
The Teatro San Cassiano in 1637: a digital reconstruction

From the moment the first public opera house – the Teatro San Cassiano – opened in Venice in 1637, opera has been a media industry in Italy.  By the early nineteenth century, virtually every Italian city and many Italian towns as well had their own opera theaters; in the case of larger cities, multiple opera houses.  

Like movie theaters in the first half of the twentieth century – before the advent of television – opera houses in nineteenth century Italy were not just entertainment venues but secular houses of worship, where people of virtually every class gathered to experience and cheer the musical/dramatic gospel and worship the great celebrities of their day: singers and opera composers. 

For nineteenth century Italian opera houses and twentieth century movie theaters alike, turnover was the key.  An opera (or a movie) would run for a week, by which time those who had wanted to see it had seen it.  (When I was growing up in Willingboro, NJ, we had a single theater, part of the Fox chain; new movies opened every Wednesday.)

What “turnover” meant for nineteenth century Italian opera was a constant demand for new operas, which were composed and produced with assembly line-like speed to meet a demand that seemed never to flag.  

It’s hard for us to imagine the heart-stopping deadline pressure the nineteenth century Italian opera industry put on its composers, producers, and performers.  New operas had to be contracted, librettos written, music composed, casts assembled and rehearsed, sets designed and built and costumes sewn in just a few weeks’ time, over and over again.  Typically, a composer would ride into town, compose an opera in roughly three weeks, supervise its production and conduct the first few performances before moving on to the next town and the next opera. The Italian public’s appetite for new operas was insatiable, so turnover was the name of the game. The most successful opera composers were those who were not just top-flight composers but those who could write fast, composers who additionally weren’t above the selective “reuse” of previously composed materials in order to meet their deadlines.  

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) in 1820
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) in 1820

We are told that:

“Seldom were the operas published, and Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), for one, knowing that the next town would not have heard his last opera, would calmly appropriate sections from it and pass them off as new. Rossini’s most famous opera, The Barber of Seville, of 1816, uses arias and ensembles from La Cambiale de Matrimonio of 1810 and, in addition, material from four other of his operas. It was typical that The Barber took the composer no more than 13 days to finish. ‘I always knew Rossini was a lazy man,’ joked the composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) when told of this feat.” 

Donizetti knew what he was talking about: it took him just eight days to compose the opera L’elisir d’amore, “The Elixir of Love.”…

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