28 November 2022
Tracing Italian Opera Performers in the Nineteenth Century Americas
Barry Robinson is the Robert Haywood Morrison Professor of History at Queens University of Charlotte and was a 2020 British Library Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow.
In August 1895 a committee of prominent musicians and members of the Italian community in Lima, Peru announced a benefit concert to be held on behalf of the seventy-seven-year-old composer Carlos Enrique Pasta. Their stated purpose was “to alleviate the pitiful situation in which the well-known and respectable maestro finds himself in his old age.”1 Pasta had first come to Lima in 1855 as part of the many waves of Italian performers who travelled through and to the Americas during the nineteenth century.
Italian migrants like Pasta brought European content to American audiences, but they also created new performances that drew from local themes and contemporary politics. Pasta’s zarzuela ¡Pobre indio! debuted in Lima on 3 March 1868. The performance included two yaravies and a huayno (indigenous Andean folk ballads and dance, respectively), with the overture incorporating the chorus of the Peruvian National Anthem.2 This cultural exchange filtered back across the Atlantic, with productions of American-inspired work making their way to the most prominent opera houses of Europe.
Pasta’s best remembered work, the opera Atahualpa, recast the Inca emperor as a tragic and nuanced figure, set to a melancholy and melodious score. His librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni, also authored the libretto for Verdi’s Aida. Pasta returned to Italy for the debut of Atahualpa in November 1875 at Genoa’s Teatro Paganini, where critics reported “applause galore – more than twenty calls to the maestro – Bravo Maestro Pasta!”3 Atahualpa’s success continued at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, but by January 1877 Pasta had returned to Lima for the opera’s Peruvian debut at the Teatro Principal.4 He continued to compose zarzuelas over the next few years. As of 1887 he was offering his services to the citizens of Lima as a piano and voice teacher.5
Along with my colleague, Dr. Lucia Galleno, I have been constructing a database of hundreds of individuals like Carlo Enrico Pasta to track the movement of Italian opera performers (singers, musicians, and empresarios) from Italy to the Americas in the nineteenth century. We are employing traditional historical research along with techniques from the digital humanities and geospatial analysis to identify broader patterns among the companies, theatres, and performers who formed part of this influential cultural transference. Their stories might best be visualized as a fluid network of journeys spanning the Atlantic and centering on urban hubs with theatres connecting to the international tour circuits.6
Lima makes for a revealing node from which to begin charting these transatlantic opera networks. Italian opera served as a vibrant element of the city’s cultural life, drawing large crowds of passionate supporters who often engaged in vigorous public critiques and debates, occasionally spilling over into physical violence.7 In 1896, the year after the benefit concert for Maestro Pasta, famed Peruvian literary figure Manuel Moncloa y Covarrubias recalled the vigorous partisanship surrounding the career of soprano Clotilde Barilli in the 1850s, labelling it “a scandal of colossal proportions.”8 Barilli’s fans developed such a furious rivalry with those of the O’Loghlin theatre company that in the 1852 season grave wounds were delivered with a rapiers and firearms, to the point that General Pedro Cisneros de la Torre called in an infantry battalion to restore order. In his Mujeres de teatro, Moncloa y Covarrubias notes that, given the politically fluid nature of those times, this action put the inhabitants of the entire city in a state of great alarm.9
The British Library Reader Pass has provided an invaluable opportunity to connect nineteenth century Italian migrants more fully to the communities in which they lived and performed, and to trace their movement across the Atlantic from cities like London, Madrid, and Milan through our focal point of Lima, Peru, and around the Americas to cultural hubs such as New York, Havana, and New Orleans.
The career of Clorinda Corradi Pantanelli, credited by Basadre with “definitively popularizing” Italian opera in Peru during the season that began on 2 September, 1840, illustrates the scope of this movement.10 After initiating her career in Italy and Spain in the 1820s and 1830s, Corradi Pantanelli sang in Havana, Cuba as a part of a company managed by her husband, Raffaele Pantanelli, from 1836 to 1839. During an interim 1837 season at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans, two other performers “absconded” from the company and the empresario engaged in a heated financial dispute with the owner of the St. Charles.11
Corradi Pantanelli’s company arrived in Peru in 1840. The immediate popularity of Corradi Pantanelli’s performance in Lima prompted conservative literary figure Felipe Pardo y Aliaga to publish an essay entitled “Opera y nacionalismo” in October 1840, in which he critiqued what he viewed as a liberal, mercantile fascination with this foreign art form as an ornament of national modernity. Pardo y Aliaga protested that “Nonsensical nationalism has produced few more original phenomena than the one observed on the occasion of the arrival of the Italian company that today charms this capital.”12
Corradi Pantanelli’s company remained in Lima until April 1844, when they continued southward to Chile. They opened the newly constructed Teatro Victoria in Valparaiso in December.13 Corradi Pantanelli continued to perform in Chile over the next decade. Records of the University of Chile show that she took a post as a professor at the National Conservatory of Music in May of 1861.14
The career of mezzo-soprano Estefanía Collamarini provides a final example of the migrant trajectories of these performers. In 1898 Moncloa y Covarrubias characterized Collamarini as “the most splendidly beautiful Carmen we have had [in Lima]”.15 The following year Collamarini ranged as widely as Mexico City, San Francisco, and even Kansas City, Missouri, where she personally funded a reorganization of the stranded Lombardi Opera Company to enable it to complete its tour of the United States.16 Collamarini returned to South America where she continued to perform through at least 1905, when she performed at the Teatro de Sao Pedro d’Alcantara in Rio de Janeiro.17
The British Library affords world class access to a wealth of source material that is not accessible at our home institution, including memoirs, catalogues of performances, photos and paintings, diagrams of theatres, an outstanding general reference collection, and excellent nineteenth century newspaper collections (including both hard copy and digital databases). The Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship has enabled me to track the locations and management of theatres, the movement of individuals and opera companies, and the public reactions and responses to their performances in the major cities of South and North America. These materials help us to transcend the violence of abstraction by putting a personal and individual contour onto the data, adding a human voice to the historic drama that the performers experiences represent.
1. El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 19 August 1895. British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive.
2. Jorge Basadre, Historia de la República del Perú (Lima, 1961-1968), Vol. IV, p. 1903, BL shelfmark: W31/3274. Basadre points out that this debut occurred during a period of heightened indigenismo in Lima. A zarzuela differs from an opera in that it intersperses the music and singing with sections of unaccompanied spoken verse. Vera Wolkowicz views the huayno and yaraví as part of the early foundation of national Peruvian music, and cites Pasta as the first composer of any nationality to incorporate Andean folk elements into his compositions. Vera Wolkowicz, Inca Music Reimagined: Indigenist Discourses in Latin American Art Music (Oxford University Press, 2022) p. 57.
3. Carlo Civallero, “Gazzetino di Genova,” 29 November and 9 Dicembre, in: Appolonio e Caprin, L'Arte: Rassegna di teatri, scienzi e lettere con annessa Agenzia. Trieste, 30 November 1875 No. 33, p. 3 and 13 December 1875, No. 34, p. 3.
4. On August 6, 2015, Lima’s Gran Teatro Nacional hosted a resurrected performance of Pasta’s Atahualpa for the first time since the nineteenth century. El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 7 August 2015. British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive.
5. El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 9 October 1887, British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive. The Hotel de Francia é Inglaterra was located at 204 Calle Judíos.
6. John Rosselli has identified a number of seasonal patterns to this movement, which he categorizes into three distinct circuits: 1) Austral America (including Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina), 2) the Circum-Caribbean, including Havana, Caracas, and major cities in the Eastern United States, and 3) a Pacific circuit extending from Mexico up to San Francisco and down through Central America to Peru and Chile. John Roselli, “The Opera Business and the Italian Immigrant Community in Latin America 1820-1930: The Example of Buenos Aires.” Past & Present, May, 1990, No. 127, pp 165-166.
7. Robert Stevenson’s Foundations of New World Opera (Lima: Pacific Press, 1973) BL shelfmark YM.1991.b.9 and Chad Gasta’s Transatlantic Arias: Early Opera in Spain and the New World (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2013) BL shelfmark YD.2014.a.786, identify Peru as a center of early New World Opera through the eighteenth century, but scholars of nineteenth century opera tend to overlook Peru.
8. Moncloa y Covarrubias often used the pen name M. Cloamón. M. Cloamón, “De telón adentro,” El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 29 May, 1896, British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive. His extensive Diccionario teatral del Perú (Badiola y Berrio, 1905) offers a vital foundation for identifying specific Italian opera performers at a date and theatre in Lima, and identifying their company and the works they performed.
9. Enrica Jemma Glickman, “Italian Dramatic Companies and the Peruvian Stage in the 1870s,” Latin American Theatre Review, Spring 1973, p. 43; Manuel Moncloa y Covarrubias, Mujeres de teatro: apuntes, perfiles, y recuerdos (Callao, Imp. El Progreso, 1910) p. 11.
10. Jorge Basadre, Historia de la República del Perú (Lima, 1961-1968), Vol. II, p. 399, BL shelfmark W31/3272.
11. Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) 8 June 1837. British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive; Katherine K. Preston, Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60. (Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993) pp. 113-117, BL shelfmark 93/24434.
12. Felipe Pardo y Aliaga, “Opera y nacionalismo,” in: El espejo de mi tierra. Edición y estudio preliminar de Alberto Tauro (Lima: Editorial Universo, 1971) pp. 74-89, BL shelfmark X.907/12764.
13. José Manuel Izquierdo Konig details the process of constructing the Teatro Victoria in: “The Invention of an Opera House: The 1844 Teatro Victoria in Valparaiso, Chile,” Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 32, 2021, p. 140.
14. Anales de la Universidad de Chile: memorias científicas y literarias, Volume 18 (Universidad de Chile, 1861) p. 603, BL shelfmark Ac.2693.
15. Moncloa y Covarrubias, Diccionario teatral del Perú (Badiola y Berrio, 1905) p. 51.
16. Manuel Mañon, Historia del Teatro Principal de México (México, 1932) p. 209, BL shelfmark, 11795.tt.36; “Stranded Opera Company Reorganizes.” New York Times (1857-1922); Oct 24, 1899.
17. Richard Langham Smith and Clair Rowden, eds. Carmen Abroad: Bizet's Opera on the Global Stage (Cambridge University Press, 2020) p. 162, BL shelfmark YC.2022.b.205.