Relocation, relocation, relocation

11 January 2021

Relocation; after months of being in the same place I’m sure we'd all love to head off to somewhere hot, sunny and corona free. If we are not dreaming of a different country altogether than at least some different surroundings; the famous television show Relocation, Relocation may be prime daytime television watching but what we at Welsh National Opera will be discussing today is a tad more radical than whether you want a south facing garden. Relocation in opera was usually used to escape strict government censors but was usually more metaphorical than literal.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the best way to spread a revolutionary message would be through the format of opera, with no television or radio the message could spread to the masses and as large percentages of the population were illiterate an oral way was the ideal way to reach everyone. As opera used to be first and foremost a social event, a crowded affair, it worried those higher up that the aftermath of all the post performance talking would lead to anarchy.

In fact nearly all operas in Europe from 1815 – 1914 were in the hands of government censors. Works by Rossini, Donizetti, Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and even the lighter side of opera was affected, like the composers Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan. ‘Music itself seemed to be safe enough: Musicians are lucky, they don’t have to bother about the censors’, wrote the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer. However music with lyrics had the power to stir the people's emotions and goad them into action against the state.

Man in trench coat surrounded by 3 figures in clown figures.

The drama behind the scenes sometimes rivalled the drama on the stage, it certainly seemed that way with Verdi’s operas. Rigoletto for example was engaged in the censor warfare and finally reached this conclusion nearly a year later in January 1851 the parties had settled on a compromise: the action of the opera would be moved, and some of the characters would be renamed. A far cry from the original reaction to the opera which was, described by the Austrian censor De Gorzkowski as ‘a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality.’

Politics, war and royalty all have a part to play in the game that was where to set your opera. Verdi did not want to intentionally offend but merely show the realities of life so that the art form could actually reflect the society and culture of the time. What we see is that those in power at the time were actually so scared to allow opera that may cast them in an unfortunate light, that they literally banished them from happening. They must have known that when the world is shown through opera that's when the revolutions start.

So if you’re feeling bored and stuck, close your eyes and transport yourself somewhere else. Verdi did it with whole operas so you can do it with just yourself (and maybe your favourite celebrity crush.) Happy imagining everybody…