George Orwell argued that “the golden age of the artist was the age of the capitalist. The artist had then escaped from the patron, and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat”. The story I wish to relate here is the transformation of the financing and organization of opera from aristocratic patronage, to entrepreneurial venture capital, and finally public subsidies provided by the bureaucrat. In the process the art form of opera was itself transformed.

The principal transformation of artistic production in the modern era has been the progressive rise of the market as a means of connecting artists and the public to replace personal patronage as the primary form of support for the arts. Historians of music have often emphasized the primacy of opera in this transformation.

Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance takes place in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble. It is the most expensive of all artistic forms.

On-Stage Performance, Off-Stage Appeal

Opera first appeared in 17th century Italy and reached its full bloom from the late 18th century into the second half of the 19th century; towards the end of Verdi’s career. Opera spread throughout Europe and the United States.  Figure 1  shows the number of new operas created in each country since the 17th century. The dominance of Italian Opera is unmistakable. The high point in terms of the number of new operas introduced is the 1760-1780 period, when 1,023 new operas appeared across Italy. It then declined.

Figure2  below illustrates the spread of opera through Italy. Florence, the birthplace of opera, does not sustain its lead. Venice, Rome and even Bologna surpass it in terms of quantity. By the second half of the 17th century Milan and Naples have discovered opera. Naples’ output accelerates, peaking with 26 new productions in 1770 alone. Milan’s later start is most interesting as it is the home of La Scala; the most famous and vibrant Italian opera house.

Many famous operas in Italian were written by foreign composers, including Handel, Gluck and Mozart. Works by native Italian composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, are amongst the most famous operas ever written.

During the first decades of the 17th century, aristocratic patrons adopted opera as a form of official entertainment. The system of personal patronage began to crumble first in this most expensive form of musical performance, creating the conditions for the emergence of opera houses and a market for entertainment. In the world of opera, the paying public that emerged at the end of the 18th century fundamentally redefined the social structure of musical life.

The change in status of the artist from the position of craftsman-servant of a patron to become an artist-prophet for a public audience transformed the content and presentation of art. The alteration in status made the artist a business person. He or she was not just promoting art, but found it necessary to promote himself or herself as well. Broad appeal was the goal of every performing artist and composer.

The rise of opera was a discrete event in music history, with musicians and dramatists adopting new methods to make a new product and the forming of new institutions to produce it. While it is tempting to attribute the rise of opera to the geniuses of individual artists that converged upon Italy, but the capital required to guarantee an opera season made it an expensive enterprise and in the best of circumstances still a very risky business.  The success of a season depended on finding a way to engage the interest of a large public willing to pay for expensive tickets and at the same time to secure subsidies to cover the gap between costs and prices.

Until about 200 years ago, the great opera houses in Italy – Naples’ San Carlo and Milan’s La Scala among them were privately run and profitable – even though their ownership was a mixture of crown and private property. Oxford Historian John Roselli has detailed the many aspects of the opera industry in Italy from the late 18th century to the 19th century – the golden era.

The opera houses functioned as the meeting place of the town and supplied multi-faceted services to meet the diverse business, social and entertainment needs of its more prosperous citizens. Every season new operas were written specifically for each town to cater to variations in local preferences. Going to the opera house constituted an occasion for sociability for the upper echelons of urban society rather than merely for the enjoyment of opera in and of itself. The boxes were equipped with curtains that allowed them to be turned into private rooms cut-off from the spectacle of the opera, but also the hubbub of the public, whose noise could be louder than the sound of the music itself. However, above all, one went to the opera houses to play games of chance.

The physical layout of theatres reflected these considerations. The city elites and their friends sat in private boxes and were waited upon by servants that came with them. The galleries had open seating and were divided between benches and standing space in flexible proportions to cater for shifts in demand from performance to performance. The theatre grounds functioned as what we might now call a business and social center, with private rooms to hire for commerce, legal consultation, sexual dalliance, and gambling.

The ringmaster of the Italian opera houses in the golden era was the impresario. He was basically a commercial entrepreneur, a merchant of contracts. In contrast to the lead-actor, who also could manage a season, the impresario did not have a pre-assembled company of players or a repertory of operas more or less ready to perform; instead, he constructed both of these depending on the needs of his contracts with those authorities who controlled the various opera houses.

The impresario of Italian operatic life was an intermediary, a fixer; he negotiated with various parties to see who was available and on what conditions. He had to go into every detail: operas, ballets, soloists, scenery and costumers, to say nothing of financial terms. And to launch a season, he had to start preparation work a whole year or nine months ahead; with negotiations conducted across Italy.

To stay competitive, the opera houses probably pioneered a two-part tariff charge structure, which is now used by museums, galleries, and amusement parks to maximize fee income.  It entailed selling a ticket granting access to the public spaces of the opera house’s theatre buildings; however, admission into the actual auditorium for a performance required another payment. To sit in a box required further payment to the impresario, whose contract with the theatre owners may include, additionally, a block of boxes for his own disposal as one way of recouping costs. Box-owners could however sub-let their boxes for profit, thus competing with the impresarios.

The opera industry operated at a hectic pace given the large volume of operas that had to be produced to meet the needs of the city states. The 19th century opera singer had a schedule of four to five, even six, performances a week as a norm. It was not atypical that even as the libretto was written and had got past the censorship that operated in all Italian states, the composer would still be writing the second or third act in the course of the rehearsals and perhaps almost up to the first performance! Dress rehearsals sometimes ended at 3 am in the morning on the day of the performance. Singers learn their parts as these were being written, rehearsed them, and sang performances of the season’s first opera all at once, within a few days of the opening.

Opera Becomes Urban Elite’s High Culture

The impresarios toiled under threat that a singer would fall ill or sing out of tune, an epidemic would break out, a princely death would occur, and, of course, the first performance would fail to meet with audience approval. And when any of these events occurred, the impresario would have to deal with it as best as he could to meet his commitments to the singers, playwrights, composers, set designers, costume makers, financiers, and the lot. Theatrical gossip of impresarios who had left the company in their lurch and vanished in the middle of the night never totally died out. There were even occasions when the impresario was locked up when the audience rioted in protest against a disappointing first performance.

In this tight little world, the impresario provided stylized entertainment. The impresarios themselves were speculators with little capital and no real estate. Many stumbled into the profession, perhaps faute de mieux (translate: having nothing else better to do), and only rarely motivated by any particular love for music itself. Theirs was a world full of sleaze, exploitation and chance. Most impresarios were entrepreneurs of one kind or another and were in it for the money not the art. The impresarios operated in a fiercely competitive market for audiences, singers, theatres. They were the fulcrum of the complex organizational machine that held opera together during the golden era.

The financial support for the opera flowed from the rates for the boxes, the tickets from the galleries, as well as the takings from concession shops (food, drinks, etc.). But by far the most important source of income for the opera houses was from the privativa – monopoly license – on gambling.

Given the costs and risks of the opera business, a decent financial reward from handling opera seasons simply would not exist without the gambling concessions. The Italian city states provided an innovative indirect public subsidy to the opera houses that allowed them to be sustained by the income of the casinos adjoining the theaters, where “rouge et noir” [translate: red and black or roulette] was the favorite game. Rossini, for example, got a meager 200 ducats a month as musical director of San Carlo, but earned another 1,000 ducats as his share from the house’s gambling tables.

These opera-casino combinations were the entertainment complexes of their day, where the profits also paid for R&D – that is, the commissioning of new ballets and operas. The city state governments in Italy also looked to the opera houses as a lucrative sourceof collecting license fees from gambling concessions. Monte Carlo today is a reminder of this once customary arrangement.

The gambling concessions granted to Italy’s opera houses were abolished in 1778 by a reactionary and conservative Austria, reestablished in 1798 by the victorious French revolutionary forces, and then prohibited again by the restored Austrian government in 1815. After this time, gambling finally ceased to constitute the solid financial source with which impresarios could guarantee their contracted seasons.

The Austrian government recognized that the theater could not function with just the money from the original contract and so conceded a direct subsidy of 200,000 lira per year – which was renewed until the end of Austrian domination in 1859, and was then inherited by the new unified Italian state that emerged during the Risorgimento.

The lost of the gambling concession gradually ended a system that sponsored breakneck and sometimes indiscriminate productivity of new operas promoted by the impresarios. After the production of opera ceased to be profitable it became transformed into a nonprofit enterprise and presented itself as ‘‘an institution in service to art, the community, and the nation’’.

At the end of the 19th century, opera was both a popular and elite artistic form. Once the transition to a nonprofit form was completed, the legitimacy of opera as an artistic genre grew rapidly. Opera became included in the national system of high culture, taking its place with the other arts in university curricula as a subject of study. It was replaced by the new system of repertory opera, increasingly stressing revivals of established works instead of the creation of new works. The core repertory of operatic works performed today is dominated by a small number of high quality works. The operas dominating the genre, such as Rigoletto, Il Travatore and La Traviata, are a product of the collective invention of almost three centuries of opera composers.

Macau’s Gaming Monopoly Opens Up, Performing Arts Sparkles

Opera today is a heavily government subsidized elite entertainment for a wealthy urban public. Opera progressively lost in the early 1900s the forms and conventions that had made it popular among all social classes, becoming – through the same opera houses – one of the most marked emblems of high culture. It is increasingly performed in its original language, beyond the comprehension of the public, and subject to sophisticated aesthetic elaboration by music critics.

The transformation of Italian opera houses from a theater of box-owners run by impresarios into a non-profit enterprise exclusively devoted to cultural and educational ends epitomizes the extension of a high culture model to opera and the arrival of the age of the bureaucrat. Since then the music publishers have replaced the impresarios in driving opera.

By today’s sanitation standards, the opera houses are now a more pleasant place to visit. Restroom facilities in opera houses during the days of the impresario were, in fact, often limited or non-existent, and the resulting recourses made by both members of the audience and the performers could render these houses foul-smelling indeed! But the opera houses have also ceased to be a microcosm of the society outside.

Politics had put an end to the opera as a business. After gambling was outlawed, opera houses were forced to depend on explicit subsidies from governments to prevent them from closing. Some ventures cannot survive commercially if denied the option to be offered jointly with other goods or services like the fable of the bees and the orchards. The stage was set for socializing or subsidizing opera theaters. And the opera houses would stay open.

Cultural initiatives can be thought of as an R&D project. There may be 10,000 scripts written each year, 1,000 read, 100 produced, and 20 that are profitable. These experiments will not be privately financed unless subsidies are high enough to allow investors to earn high enough returns from the 20 successes both to cover losses on the 80 failures and to keep in business those who filter down the selection to 100. In countries where subsidies are low, we observe the decline of cultural enterprises.

The lesson here is that the burden of regulation from a distant, forgotten past, prevent the financing of entertainment businesses today. The public wants a vibrant culture, and they communicate this desire to politicians. But the public is less aware of the links between gambling regulations and cultural ventures. By analogy, the prohibition of cigarette advertisements in Hong Kong, for example, pushed more cultural events to look for government sponsorship.

The public wants to be assured that it gets some entertainment. Politicians respond by promising to keep the cultural institutions open by subsidizing or nationalizing them. But critics of such policies argue that what is being produced through government subsidy is statistical rather than genuine culture. But, unless such critics offer alternative solutions such as legalizing casinos or reinstating cigarette advertisements, they will not put an end to the financing of culture by governments.

What we observe today is that, after some 200 years, governments have rediscovered gambling, but have kept for themselves the monopoly on the sale of lotteries in exchange they promise voters to finance cultural establishments and other expenditures. In this fashion, the government finances the same combination of activities that has been prohibited in the private sector. The difference is that risk-averse bureaucrats will be more eager to please established well organized cultural special interests with a track record of achievements than to invest in new creative ventures, which they are not incentivized to support like the Italian impresarios.

Perhaps the future will see the privatizing of both lotteries and cultural establishment, thus allowing entrepreneurs to recombine them. We have seen competition among casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas led them to rediscover the old business model of the Italian opera houses, perhaps unknowingly. Pavarotti has sang in Atlantic City’s casinos and Steve Wynn has transformed Las Vegas from a cultural cesspool into a center of reasonably high-quality entertainment, including Cirque de Soleil, Broadway musicals, and now a “mini-museum” of Impressionist art.

Before the restoration of sovereignty over Macau from Portugal to China the only respectable show in Macau was the Crazy Paris Show in Stanley Ho’s Hotel Lisboa. After the gambling monopoly was lifted in Macau, competition among casinos led Sheldon Adelson to invite Cirque de Soleil and top singers like Celine Dion, Beyoncé Knowles, and José Carreras. Lawrence Ho has recently given us The House of Dancing Water.

One wonders whether Hong Kong had missed an opportunity to become the cultural capital of Asia. What if the British had never criminalized gambling in Hong Kong or shackled the Hong Kong Jockey Club with its charity mission; things might perhaps have been quite different. Political realities dictate that history will not be rewritten in Hong Kong this time.

If Hong Kong’s largest cultural project under the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority has a cultural future that can be enjoyed by all then the financing and organizational arrangements needs to be redone; I hope it will not be too late. Professor Alfred Marshall once said, “A government could print a good edition of Shakespeare’s works, but it could not get them written.”

I would like to dream that maybe some day the impresarios in Macau will bequeath to us a form of cultural entertainment befitting a rising Asia and that which we can call our own. And I hope to meet Mozart in a game of chance then; I was told he is addicted to gambling.


Siobhan McAndrew, The Economic Institutions of Opera in Britain, c.1870-c.1970, University of Oxford, Division of Humanities, Faculty of Modern History, Nuffield College, Thesis (D. Phil.), 2006. A summary appears in “Opera Composition and the Operatic Canon”, June 2006, pp. 1-21.

George Orwell, As I Please. Tribune, 8 September 1944.

John Roselli, The Opera Industry in Italy From Cimarosa to Verdi: The Role of the Impressario, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Bernard Zelechow, The Opera: The Meeting of Popular and Elite Culture in the Nineteenth Century”, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, Issue 2, March, 2004, pp. 91-97.


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