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  • Art, Business, Canon, and Opera: Two New Studies
  • William Weber (bio)

Art, Business, Canon, and Opera: Two New Studies Jutta Toelle, Oper als Geschäft: Impresari an italienischen Opernhäusern, 1860–1900 (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007). 269 pages, €34.95.
Philipp Ther, In der Mitte der Gesellschaft: Operntheater in Zentraleuropa, 1815–1914 (Vienna and Munich: Oldenbourg, 2006). 465 pages, €39.80.

Social history has developed more slowly in studies of opera than in those on concert life. While political aspects of the opera world have come to attention, relatively little systematic investigation has been done on the social or economic frameworks surrounding opera houses. For that matter, the question has only recently been raised as to when canons arose in opera repertories (was it 1870? 1900? 1925?), a question that is as much social as it is musical. I am therefore delighted to encounter two works of systematic social analysis on nineteenth-century opera, one on Italy and the other on central Europe.

Jutta Toelle, a musicologist at Humboldt University, Berlin, confronts the severe administrative crisis that Italian opera theaters encountered in the second half of the nineteenth century. First, the political and social upheaval following the revolution of 1848 disturbed opera life significantly, and then in 1868 the new national government abolished the extensive subsidies which most of the former states had traditionally granted opera. Individual cities were not ready to take up much of the burden of financial responsibility for opera until after the turn of the twentieth century. The impresario remained the central figure in efforts to find funds to pay the increasing cost of putting on either new or old productions. Toelle's volume is critically important in establishing in detail just how impresarios came to grips with the problems attending in different kinds of contexts, and how their work was fundamentally transformed by 1914. One values the care and the economy with which the book is put together and the argument developed.

Toelle builds upon the scholarly classic by John Rosselli on the previous period, The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi: The Role of the [End Page 157] Impresario.1 The thrust of her argument is that the Teatro alla Scala made the key breakthrough in going beyond the long-standing traditions of the independent impresario and collective governance by boxholders. Toelle looks at opera theaters more distinctively in sociological terms than did Rosselli. She identifies the groups that wielded authority in most theaters: the impresario, boxholders, administrators of the theater, and officers of municipal government. Subscribers who did not own or rent boxes also played an important role, as did the musicians and the dancers (usually called le masse), even though they did not have any organized authority. Yet by the 1850s the broadest authority was exerted by the main publishing firms, Ricordi and Sonzogno, which determined specifically what theaters produced and with whom.

The collapse of state funding and the complexity of local interest groups put impresarios in a deeply problematic financial situation and led to the bankruptcy of almost every major institution at least once during the period under discussion. While impresarios were blamed for the instability of many theaters, Toelle shows how often a bankruptcy came from bad judgment or simple bad luck in juggling an extraordinary variety of financial matters. She concludes that "arguably all those of influence in the Italian opera industry—impresarios, boxholders, city officials, publishers, composers, etc.—became more or less aware during this period that the system of financing and the organizational structure of the opera world no longer really functioned" (62).

Toelle shows that capitalistic endeavors failed to provide a solution. Impresarios' search for financial support—rarely from their own resources—became increasingly problematic, and attempts to use corporate capital also failed to remedy the situation. If anything brought a productive new path, it was the transformation of the impresario from an active into a passive administrator under the aegis of city control. This involved purging the opera world of its most long-standing assumptions about how opera would be produced. A whole host of new principles began to be accepted after 1900: city subsidy and authority, higher ticket prices, and eventually...


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