Hidden history

Here’s a solution to the Met Opera’s financial woes: Open a gambling casino in the opera house.

Cue howls of outrage. But opera was in fact funded that way in 19th century Italy. That’s one thing I’ve learned from a book called Bel Canto Bully (not a great title), a biography of Domenico Barbaja, the leading 19th century Italian opera impresario, written by Philip Eisenbeiss, and about to be published.

san carlo blogI knew Barbaja’s name, as many serious opera fans might, because he ran the San Carlo opera house — the grandest in Italy — in Naples. And made Rossini a superstar by giving him a contract to write spectacular operas. So Barbaja will be mentioned in any biography of Rossini, and in most program or liner notes for any of his Naples  operas (Elisabetta, for instance, or Mosè, Armida, or Otello).

I also knew, from extensive reading, that opera in Italy back then was private enterprise. Opera houses were owned either by private individuals or by local royalty (Italy was divided into many small states), but in either case the building would be rented to entrepreneurs — impresarios — who’d pay for and produce the operas, hoping to make a profit. Which they’d better make, because opera house owner was guaranteed a share, with no excuses allowed if the profit wasn’t made.

But now the book educated me. Impresarios often didn’t make a profit. They’d crash and burn, either because they weren’t good at running things, or because the enterprise was so expensive that profit wasn’t likely. So they’d flee town, or maybe get thrown in jail.

How to fix that? Gambling! Set up gambling in the opera house, as many hours as possible each day and night — even (especially!) during performances — and now the money might pour in. Performance nights were the best time to offer gambling, because people were in the opera house, and, according to the custom of the time, didn’t listen from beginning to end, but rather talked, and visited with friends, And wandered out to gamble.

Barbaja was the king of this arrangement. He first got the gambling concession for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, and then proposed he run the operas, too, which he did with fabulous results, both musically and on the bottom line.

Engaging Rossini was one of his coups. But Rossini was no fool. He demanded (beyond the large fees that he was paid) a share of the profits, which included the profits from gambling! He was all of 22 years old, but wise in the ways of the world. He’d made money from his early operas, and — on top of his fees, and his cut of the profits — invested some of it in Barbaja’s double enterprise. So now he had three Barbaja income streams.

I call this a hidden history because we’re not taught it in music school. There’s still a sense that classical music is somehow sacrosanct, and we read that notion back into the past, when it had no truth at all. Time to revise those music history courses! Especially now that we’re teaching entrepreneurship in music schools. Let’s tell students how entrepreneurial — how wildly entrepreneurial — classical music used to be.

And if the Met won’t fund itself with gambling, every time they put Rossini on their stage, he’s laughing at them.

For those without a sense of humor: I know very well that gambling raises moral questions, and legal questions, too, not to mention questions involving real estate. Where would the Met put its new casino? Where in the opera house would there be room enough? 

But let’s not forget that gambling — I’ll never call it “gaming,” its euphemistic marketing mame — has spread throughout the US, and that lotteries are an important source of state government revenue. And let’s also not forget that nonprofit arts institutions are, more and more, going down profit-making paths to fund themselves. And that casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City have been in the performance biz for years, offering glittering shows by superstars. Pavarotti sang in Atlantic City. So is gambling at the Met really so far-fetched? 

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  1. says

    A number of books quote Handel regarding Opera in London:

    “Operas … are an Encouragement and Support to an Art that has been cherished by all Polite Nations. […] Therefore it seems very strange that this great and opulent City hath not been able to support Publick Spectacles of this sort for any considerable time. The reason of which seems to be cheifly that they have been hitherto carryed on upon a narrow Bottom of Temporary Contributions Extreamly Burthensome to the People of Quality … ”

    I’d imagine that we know very little of how Opera has supplemented operating costs over the centuries.

    • says

      I think there’s a fair amount of information about Handel. He ran three companies, one as hired gun, the others as proprietor. I believe they all ran on the same system. Aristocrats subscribed, meaning they’d receive a share of the profits if there were any (there were supposed to be), and would contribute money to offset any losses (which is what usually happened).

      Musicologists and historians have been doing huge amounts of work in the past decade or so on details like this. Poring (as the Barbaja author did) through old archives and financial records. A search of scholarly papers should be fruitful. One pioneering work, though not about opera, is a book you probably know, William Weber’s Music and the Middle Class, which has detailed financial information about musical organizations in London, Paris, and Vienna in the early 19th century.

      The Handel quote you gave us reflects, I think, the key entrepreneurial decision of H’s life — to go to London, because London didn’t have opera, and London aristocrats who’d traveled on the continent and seen opera there would supply a ready market. Smart move! His next smart move was to give up writing and producing operas when competition arose and demand fell off, and start writing and producing oratorios.

  2. says

    I am wondering if you know about MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania (Australia). It was established by David Walsh, a professional gambler who also developed some kind of system for gambling on sport which made him a gazillionaire. MONA is easily the best museum in the country and it is described by Walsh as a “subversive adult disneyland”. There’s additional subversiveness in the names of the festivals that run out of the museum “MONA FOMA” (Museum of Old and New Art: Festival of Music and Art) has been shortened in a very Australian fashion to MOFO, and the festival club is called “Faux Mo”. Loving the puntastic names here? Thought you would, and it’s all thanks to gambling money! At least he’s putting it to creative use.

    Interestingly, there is not much classical music going on. I see the Tasmanian Symphony is doing a live soundtrack thing for Disney’s Fantasia, but there’s not much more. Philip Glass came out a couple of years ago but most of the music acts over the few years of the festival’s existence have been non-classical (Nick Cave, Martha Wainright, The Dresden Dolls, PJ Harvey etc.). Anyway, all this is just an aside. It’s all about the gambling money.

    Also, a goodly amount of my work is funded by the mining industry i.e. organisations for whom I work and festivals at which I’ve performed. I used to struggle ethically with this, but you can’t be too precious about it when you work in the performing arts!

    • says

      No, you can’t be precious! Though there was an incident in New York a decade or two ago. Many arts organizations were funded by Philip Morris, a large American cigarette manufacturer. New York was considering a law which made smoking in bars and restaurants illegal. That law is now an everyday part of NYC culture (to the surprise, I think, of some European visitors). Philip Morris mounted a campaign against the law when the City Council was considering it, and asked the arts organizations it funded to take stands opposing it. One of its biggest grantees did that! The Brooklyn Academy of Music, to its great shame, actually contacted City Council members, asking them to oppose the law.

      I don’t know about MONA. Reminds me a little of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, an astonishing place. My visit there made me abolish, in my mind, the categories “folk art” and “outsider art” and simply say everything classified as those things is, purely and simply, art (with no qualifier).

      It’s common, I think, for classical music to be absent from programs like the one you mention, or else to be notably conventional, next to other things happening. A few years ago, arts organizations in Chicago collaborated on a festival of Soviet-era art, and while theaters and museums came up with things that were surprising and informative, the Chicago Symphony played — you can see this coming — Shostakovich and Prokofiev. And not even unusual pieces. Just the things they’d play any year. The Symphony, to my mind, didn’t behave like an arts organization in doing that. It behaved like a mass market pop radio station!

  3. says

    The Newark Naples Project, just starting in NJ, is familiar w/the lower depths of AC, and Naples,
    but is trying to still cultivate their cultural value and not with throwing money into a losing bet, which gambling is 99% of the time.

  4. says

    Fair amount about Handel, sure, but about the financial health of the music institutions he encountered, maybe not so much. I think we could all benefit from learning this “Hidden history” if only to give us a healthier appreciation for the entrepreneurial activity of composers like Handel and organizations such as the San Carlo opera house, as well as just the general economic history of the arts–which isn’t something focused on much in orthodox music education.

    I haven’t had a chance to read Weber’s book yet, but it’s on my “to read” list–thanks for the reminder!

    • says

      The Met, is crying wolf again, but it is the richest and most endowded non-profit corportation, in the USA, if not the world…. They have been having money woes since my first opera there in 1970- a dreadful mediocre Tosca w/Martin Rich conducting Tucci, Konya and MacNeill !!!.