Opera in Naples, 1944 - Introduction
Go into a ruined opera house on a Thursday. Decide that things are so impossibly bad that you might as well reopen it the following Monday. Announce that a season of – say – twenty fully-staged operas will be presented. Engage upwards of three hundred artists. Top all this with the notion that your opera house will be run by military authorities. You have achieved something distinctively British, and quite possibly generated the substance of farce.
This is what happened in Naples in November 1943, as these pages from documents of the period show. (They are reproduced with something of their original appearance, including misprints.) They are given here as the beginning of a record which I would like to enlarge. I will gladly incorporate any further information, and would be particularly glad to hear from people who were there. Half a century after the events, this might seem unrealistic, were it not for the sheer number of people, mostly young, who were involved. (You can view a page for such information.)
In the first year of the reopening, nearly half a million Allied personnel were among the audiences at the San Carlo. (The house had over 1,600 places and there were often two performances a day. Naples, initally the main base for the 'push to the North', became the centre for rest, recuperation and demobilisation). The San Carlo venture was obviously a huge success.
The selection of documents presented here gives an indication of the scale of the operation and of the attention to detail which aided this success. Audiences on this scale do not flock to opera purely because 'there was nothing better to do'. This was not, in any case, true, even in the earliest months of occupation. There were many kinds of approved entertainment, as the welfare map indicates.
The San Carlo, however, held an easy lead in popularity. It maintained not only its exhausting schedule of fully-staged opera in house, but contributed to the seasons elsewhere, at Bari and Salerno, for example. Its orchestra gave many concerts. These often included operatic excerpts, and even full performances of 'one-acters'. The theatre also gave ballet, and occasionally hosted shows from elsewhere.
Irving Berlin singing 'My English Buddy' one night; Barbirolli conducting the next. Our Gracie, then Gigli. Stardust and Schumann. Wagner, even. It amounted to a comprehensive cultural crash course.
This was, of course, one of the aims of the venture. It was 'worker education' on a vast scale, accomplished not by dragooning, but by appealing to the ordinary person’s recognition of, and preference for, quality, when this is available and affordable, and capacity for self-education, when it is tactfully assisted.
The Allied authorities carefully fostered this. Their cultural publications must have been the salvation of the local printing industry. The San Carlo’s opera performances and its orchestra’s concerts were extensively publicised in print and relayed on the radio several times a week with commentary in English. Preferential rates were offered to the lower ranks. Programme notes in English were available. Some were written by the author Naomi Jacob, who was serving with ENSA. She also contributed the occasional series 'How to listen to Opera'.
Of course, this educative effort was also expedient in containing the exuberance of soldiery a-waking. (I have included brief extracts from John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis’s Naples’44. Both are essential reading for the darker side of the Naples experience, as is Catch 22.) Opera was irreproachable. This was important at this late stage of the war when censorship was relaxed and news reporting more candid. It was comforting for the folks at home to learn that Joe and Tommy were going to the opera. And, through radio networking, they could hear the same performances themselves. It suggested that the war was drawing to a close.
For the Italian populace, the restoration of the San Carlo was a particularly tangible giving back of an heirloom; a token of the Allies' pledge 'to liberate and not to conquer'.
The reopening of the San Carlo, which takes centre-stage here, was a small part of a much wider endeavour. Those same few months saw the restoration of thirty-nine of the city’s churches, the reopening of many galleries and public buildings, and the restoration of the University of Naples, which had been torched by the retreating Germans.
The immediate needs of the local population were being attended to as well. Field kitchens served 100,000 meals a day. (Twice as many in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in March 1944.) A major outbreak of typhus was contained with over three million treatments, cases dwindling in under three months from 350 a week to 10.
Simultaneously, the badly crippled public services were being repaired, as were the useless telephones; the empty reservoirs; the impassable roads and the derailed railstock.
The restoration of the physical infrastructure was, of course, accompanied by a parallel effort in the political sphere. The new Italian government was installed by the Allies across the Bay of Naples at Salerno. Education in Italian schools was radically reformed.
Details from A Review of Allied Military Government and of the Allied Commission in Italy, publised by Public Relations Branch, Allied Commission, APO 394 U.S.Army. Printed Stabilimento Grafico Giuseppe Menaglia - Roma, 1944