- Rossinian Opera in Translation: José Bernardo Alzedo’s Church Music in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Chile
In recent years, the interest in opera beyond the geographical limits of Europe and the genre’s poietic condition as a European phenomenon has grown exponentially, particularly in nineteenth-century studies. 1 In the case of Latin America, opera has been an important part of urban culture since at least the early eighteenth century,2 but it was only during the nineteenth century, after the Wars of Independence and the end of colonial regimes, that it became both popular and ubiquitous. This change in taste was perceived both by local audiences and foreign travelers, who could see that the old Spanish musical theater of tonadillas and zarzuelas was rapidly falling out of fashion in favor of Italian opera in the space of a single generation.3 The break with Iberia necessarily increased the demand for new local genres as well as a new vision for entertainment in the expanding urban centers of the Americas. Opera thus became “official”: in the new “Spanish-American” republics (including Mexico, Venezuela, and Chile) opera became a stage for Republican modernity, while in Brazil opera became the sounding symbol of the new tropical Empire and its court.4
It was an astounding chronological convergence that shaped both the rise of “postcolonial” Latin American nations and the ascending global influence of Italian opera, led by the music of Rossini and Bellini in the 1820s and 1830s.5 In fact, the rise of opera as the official cultural object of those new nations has been widely acknowledged and is a permanent fixture of studies of nineteenth-century music in Latin America. Nevertheless, the fact that so few operas were composed in response to this political shift has always perplexed scholars. Operatic creation has been read, mostly, as an anecdotal extension of operatic reception; from this perspective, the “first operas” of each nation become staples of nationalistic historiography rather than of serious musicological study.6
The question is complex and perplexing: if opera was so important, and if so much money was being invested in opera companies and new theaters, why were [End Page 251] so few operas composed? It is puzzling that the genre did not manifest itself in Latin America when there were so many musicians writing in other genres. Early nationalist musicological studies at the beginning of the twentieth century tended to answer this question in terms of a perceived negative influence of Italian opera, which (it was argued) impeded composers from developing a more idiomatic style. These early studies often pitted the dominant Italian genre against the supposed “healthy” influence of German instrumental music. The particularities of reception, of course, were not considered in these nationalist readings, but this viewpoint continues to permeate scholarly discourses even today.7
However, I would argue that we have been looking at this problem—the friction between the success of reception and the “failure” in creation—the wrong way around. By itself, of course, “opera” (as an abstract genre) can neither enable its participants nor impede them from specific practices. Impresarios and managers, for example, sometimes played with the idea of supporting local works. But we must keep in mind that opera became powerful in Latin America because it grew as a symbol of that newly gained modernity (imagined or not), and not simply because it was a successful form of expensive entertainment. It became powerful because it could be read as “European” and, more specifically, both as Italian (in terms of language and repertoire) and Parisian (in terms of its ethos).
The overwhelming importance of opera for local elites in Latin America can be measured in terms of monetary records and the political influences involved in the construction of opera houses that, by the 1850s, most cities in the region had built.8 Newly constructed opera houses were a consequence of European cultural domination and the aspirations of the elite in its search for a place in the modern, global world. Opera, inside opera houses, was an extension and a projection of “Europe,” and thus it not only had to be felt as, but also be...