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Italian Opera in the United States, 1800-1850. At the Origins of a Cultural Migration

edited by Giuseppe Gerbino and Francesco Zimei

8 novembre 2023
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Italian Opera in the United States, 1800–1850 explores the events that led Italian opera to cross the ocean and settle in the United States. A raft of neglected documentary artifacts, including hitherto unexamined records from historical newspapers, sheds new light on this phenomenon, which saw Italian artists and intellectuals immigrate to the United States during the century’s first decades. Previously known but only partially understood episodes including Lorenzo Da Ponte’s personal campaign to promote the Italian language in the US, and New York’s Park Theatre controversial opera season of 1825–26, are newly contextualized in light of social, cultural, and political trends of the period. The book also maps the complex network of historical actors who labored to bring Italian opera to life in America. This network included political refugees such as Filippo Trajetta and Piero Maroncelli, passionate patrons such as Dominick Lynch Jr., and bold and sometimes unscrupulous theater managers including Stephen Price and Charles W. Sandford. Italian opera was met with both admiration and suspicion, optimism and skepticism, enthusiasm and irony. Musical traditions and national identities found new meanings along the route of this early Italian migration to North America.

Giuseppe Zerbino is professor of Historical Musicology at the Department of Italian, Columbia University, New York
Francesco Zimei is professor of Musicology at the Department of Humanities of the University of Trento

From Introduction (pagg. XIII-XV)

This volume draws inspiration and direction from the international symposium “Lorenzo da Ponte and the Birth of Italian Opera in New York”, held at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America on 15 October 2018. The occasion was the first modern American performance of a newly reconstructed edition of Da Ponte’s operatic pastiche L’ape musicale, 188 years after its premiere at New York’s Park Theatre in April 1830. With this one-act azione teatrale, dedicated to the citizens of New York and staged by a company almost entirely formed by Italian singers, Da Ponte produced both his last libretto and the first Italian opera conceived in the United States for an American audience. Its revival not only provided new impetus to the study of a topic central to an understanding of the dissemination of Italian culture in America, including Da Ponte’s life and works, but it also allowed scholars to reexamine the early stages of a phenomenon whose meaning and long-term implications for the history of Italian opera in America are still gradually emerging from the scattered fragments of historical evidence. In an attempt to add new pieces to the puzzle, we have sought to emphasize fresh documentary sources as well as new perspectives on known episodes and problems with an eye on patterns of transatlantic artistic migration. 

The period covered does not present itself as a self-contained and easily definable unit—historical processes rarely do. If anything, in the annals of Italian opera in the United States, these were erratic and uncertain years, but one could also say dynamic and transformative. They approximately coincided at one end with the arrival of Lorenzo Da Ponte in America in 1805, and at the other with the brief but eventful life of the Astor Place Opera House between 1847 and 1852. The presence and legacy of Da Ponte loomed large as attempts to make Italian opera a staple of New York’s society and economy became increasingly inventive, but also costly and ultimately unsuccessful. Before Da Ponte, Filippo Trajetta, the son of the opera composer Tommaso Trajetta, and a political refugee in the wake of the fall of the Neapolitan Republic in July 1799, played an early and multifaceted role in the dissemination of Italian music as a composer, instrumentalist, singer, teacher, and occasional impresario. However, the logistics of opera production required a concerted effort involving multiple stakeholders with enough financial and cultural interests to sustain a large-scale transatlantic import. In the 1820s, New York, a city with a growing population and capital as well as a flourishing entertainment business, presented the right conditions. It was mostly thanks to the efforts of the wine merchant and music enthusiast Dominick Lynch that the famous tenor Manuel García and his opera company (which included his entire family) crossed the Atlantic with a season engagement at the Park Theatre in November 1825.

The first season of Italian opera in New York became the catalyst of change, innovation, and controversy. Questions surrounding American self-perception of its own cultural identity took center stage together with the beguiling sound of music that pushed against the grain of the conventions of the English musical theater with its strangely natural display of foreign language and vocal virtuosity. Underlying the debate on Italian opera—which newspapers helped thrust into public discussion—and the claim that musical taste could reveal the essence of a nation were pressing financial considerations. Deprived of the mixed economy of the European patronage system, opera had to find a way to survive in a new business-driven system of theater production. By the time the García troupe left for Mexico in October 1826, the question of squaring ticket sales with the financial support of the affluent stretched beyond the accounting books of the managers of the Park. One of the legacies of the García experiment was to accelerate a reflection on the role, if any, that Italian opera should play in American society in relation or in contrast to the European experience, and especially London, which was still regarded as the arbiter of theatrical taste. Different but interlocking goals merged into a complex design. For singers migrating from Europe, New York offered new economic opportunities. Their motivation was not so different from that of the stars of the English stage who crossed the Atlantic with the promise of more lucrative engagements and the prospect of a less competitive theatrical scene. Italians living in the United States such as Da Ponte, or the food entrepreneur and opera impresario Ferdinando Palmo, saw themselves as patriotic, and perhaps nostalgic, importers of the musical goods of their native land. On the other hand, for the supporters of Italian opera in New York, the ability to establish and sustain a permanent opera house came to represent a test of character in the arena of national musical identity. Perhaps not surprisingly, the historical afterlife of this phenomenon was a tendency to invest strategies of opera production with civic and moral values. 
Da Ponte was directly involved in the recruiting of the second Italian opera company to reach New York, in October 1832, exactly six years after the García troupe bid farewell to the city with their last performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Leading the new enterprise was the tenor and impresario Giacomo Montresor, to whom Da Ponte wrote: 

I have the daring to tell you with the greatest frankness in the world that a good and well-organized company of Italian singers would make a fortune in America. I have said a good company, but I should have said a very good, magnificent, excellent company, so that it could compete with and possibly win over that of Garzia [sic].

The reality turned out to be trickier. The next decades witnessed a relatively steady succession of investments and failures. No company became profitable enough to last more than a few seasons. The Montresor company folded after a year and little less than sixty performances between New York and Philadelphia. Vincenzo Rivafinoli’s company lasted about a year before it went bankrupt in 1834.

However, some significant trends started to emerge. Two complementary forces drove the cultural and monetary economy of Italian opera: the desire to build a permanent opera house and establish a resident company as a precondition for the “naturalization” of Italian opera in America, and the increasing circulation of travelling companies expanding and enriching musical and linguistic networks. Against this backdrop of mobility and permanence, a narrative of musical progress also started to solidify around an embryonic historiography of opera in the United States. Over time, it contributed to the formation of new plot structures inextricably bound to the question of musical dependence from Europe.

Courtesy by Libreria Musicale Italiana.