Dodging the Censor’s Pen

Rigoletto is one of Verdi’s most famous operas, but the opera we know and love today could easily have looked and sounded very different. At every step of the creative process, Verdi was forced to battle with the censors in Venice (where the opera premiered) to preserve the essential qualities of Hugo’s cynical play. Initially, the Venetian authorities forbade Verdi from writing an opera based on Le Roi s’Amuse; later, the subject was only approved with significant modifications to the setting and the characters. Yet while Verdi’s troubles with Rigoletto were perhaps unusually pronounced, the truth is that for Italian composers in the early to mid-1800s, censorship was a fact of life. Operas were censored for the same reason that all kinds of theater were: Authorities worried that certain subjects would spread dangerous ideas among the public, undermining the social order of the day.

One particularly touchy topic was the unflattering representation of royalty. This was especially true in the years after the French Revolution, when the monarchs of Europe suddenly understood the precarity of their positions and began to view their subjects with fear. Italy was no exception, and in the decades before Italian unification in 1861, the various states that existed on the peninsula—among them the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with its capital in Naples; the Papal States, ruled by the Pope from Rome; and the Hapsburg Empire, which controlled much of Northern Italy, including Milan and Venice—tried their utmost to suppress the kind of revolutionary sentiments that might lead to an uprising. “Immorality,” broadly conceived, was also a standard reason for required revisions, with crime, blasphemy, and sexual transgression among the most common targets of the censor’s pen. Between an unethical and philandering ruler on the one hand and premeditated homicide on the other, Le Roi s’Amuse and Rigoletto managed to offend censors on both these counts, and one can see why the story was never going to be an easy sell.   

Censorship occurred at various stages in the opera-writing process. Subjects were vetted in advance by the managers of a given theater and by the police; the libretto itself, once written, also needed official approval. Censors could demand alterations to specific words or lines, modifications to characters, the excision of specific arias or choruses, or even the rewriting of entire acts. But sometimes censorship was imposed at a later stage, after the dress rehearsal, or even after the first performance. In these cases, composers had to be able to rewrite or adapt their music in a hurry. Prior to Verdi, composers frequently reused numbers from their back catalog to fill the gaps in a censored opera; numbers that had previously fallen prey to censorship could also be reused in later works, with new words and new dramatic scenarios. Given the unending demand for new works in Italian opera houses and the speed with which Italian composers were expected to write their music, this habit of reuse made good artistic, economic, and practical sense.

On the other hand, censorship in Italian opera was never consistent. A libretto rejected by the censor in Venice might be accepted by the authorities in Rome, while an opera staged in Milan might be banned in Naples. For this reason, it seems likely that Verdi knew exactly what kind of trouble the censors might cause him when he decided to adapt Hugo’s play—and also that he had a decent chance of writing the Rigoletto he wanted anyway.

Critical Inquiry
Look up some books, songs, plays, movies, or other forms of entertainment that have been banned in your own country or state. Are you surprised by what you find?