Interview with Thomas Milholt, Rossini biographer

A few years ago, a Danish biography of Rossini, “Manden Bag Masken”  was published by Aarhus University Press. We were contacted by the author and invited him to participate in an interview excerpts of which we bring you below. We thank Thomas Milholt for his time and participation. He may be contacted at .

What prompted you to write a biography of Rossini?

I had three goals with the biography:

The first goal was to write a Danish biography which was cleansed of many of the myths about Rossini and the lack of first-hand knowledge of his operas, which had otherwise characterized the two Danish biographies of Rossini until then, respectively by Carl Thrane (1885) and Poul Ingerslev-Jensen (1959).

Much has happened in Rossini research since the time the two biographies were written. The Fondazione Rossini (The Rossini Foudation) in Pesaro has since published six thick volumes of documents and letters relating to this great master. Between them is a volume of 246 letters which, until they were discovered and sold in 2001 at Sotheby’s auctions in London, had been completely unknown. At the same time, critical editions of the scores for a large number of Rossini’s operas, which have been performed at the annual Rossini Festival in Pesaro, have been published. Together with recordings of his operas on both CD and DVD, it has created a basis for a biography which is based on a different extensive material than the two authors had at their disposal. With the many myths and lack of knowledge of many of Rossini’s works, the authors came to give an image that was not realistic of a composer who is today recognized as the most significant of the years 1800-50.

My second goal was to give my Rossini biography a new theoretical starting point. The two Danish biographies were written before the German literary historian Hans Robert Jauss launched the reception theory in the late 1970s. The Danish biographies had had a traditional musicological focus on the person and his works. I chose to add a third leg to the easel for the picture of him to stand on. By using reception theory as a theoretical framework in the biography of Rossini, I have wished to describe the reception of his operas from the audience’s point of view.

I already used this theoretical starting point in my first book, Italian Opera in the Golden Age 1800-50, which was published in 2014. Both this work and the biography must be seen as a unified work, because the first book describes the entire stage on which Rossini entered, and how his operas fared in relation to the great competition between the many Italian composers. Everyone had had access to experience operas at the theatres and operahouses since the first public opera performance at the Teatro Cassiano in Venice in 1637. The theater in general was the cinema of the time because the audience had to be stimulated and entertained even then. The production of operas in Italy was enormous. In the 18th century, around 5000 operas were written in Italy alone, while the figure for the years 1800-50 was 2500. I wrote Italian Opera in the Golden Age 1800-50 on the basis of two research periods in Italy, first in Rome and then in Florence. In this connection, I went through the overviews at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan of the operas that were staged there throughout the 19th century. Through them I could count and registrate how many performances each set-up (production) had had during the whole century. The number of performances each opera received reflected the audience’s taste and how they lived up to the audience’s expectations in the years when they were staged and thereafter. My research showed me how popular not only Rossini’s comic but also his serious operas were during his active period from 1810-29. Rossini was the all-dominant star of the opera firmament in the years when the era I call Italian late classicism flourished.

The third goal was to describe why 1814 and 1830, according to the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus in his book on 19th century music (1980), became two decisive turning points in the history of music. Dahlhaus himself was unable to give any explanation as to why they occurred. But in my research for my first book I had, via my research at the Teatro San Carlo and La Scala, attached myself to the fact that decisive changes in the audience’s taste coincided with major political events and changes in cultural-historical currents: the fall of Napoleon in 1814/15, the uprising in Paris 1830, the revolutions in Europe 1848/49, and the unification of Italy and Germany in 1861/70 and 1871 respectively.

It was my aim to give the reader an insight into how the composers were generally influenced by the political events of the time, with the fall of Napoleon and the uprising in Paris, and the classicist cultural-historical currents that gradually weakened from 1815 and onwards towards  the new romanticism that broke through in Italy and France around 1830. I chose Rossini because he was the most popular, and because virtually all other Italian operas of those years were written with his works as a model. This could contribute to an elucidation of how political events and cultural-historical currents came to influence the audience’s taste and the development of the Italian opera as a genre through the rest of the 19th century.

What audience are you hoping to reach (in the Danish version)?

I have written both my first book and my Rossini biography with the hope that the two works can reach both the general opera enthusiast and music historians and musicologists who would like to know more about this important period in the history of Italian opera. I also hoped that my research could inspire the Danish theaters and hopefully also other institutions around the world. For many years, we have been gifted with productions of around half a hundred operas worldwide, which the audience has seen in the hands of many different directors. If one (1) percent of the 5,000 operas from the 18th century and the 2,500 from the first half of the 19th century were tackled, 75 new operas could be added to the repertoire, in which the directors could find exciting challenges. If 10 percent of the 7500 operas were unearthed from the archives, the number would rise to 750 new works, which the audience would then be able to enjoy. And 250 operas from the years 1800-50.

In Denmark, with my two books, it was a goal for me to open the door to a world which until now has been relatively unknown to the Danish opera audience, and which the theaters would also be able to enjoy. The history of Italian opera in Denmark largely only begins in 1850 with Verdi’s operas La Traviata, Rigoletto. and Il Trovatore. The Italian operatic tradition before 1850 has been largely forgotten. In my home country, Danish music conservatories and universities up through the 20th century have been very focused on Wagner’s operas and German instrumental music. Our most famous singers at the Royal Theater have been Wagner tenors, just as Danish music history works and Danish musicology have generally focused on Germany rather than Italy. In the highly respected Danish 3-volume work Gyldendal’s Musikhistorie (Gyldendal’s The History of Music), Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century takes up less than 20 lines. It is a shame because this very important part of Italian opera history has thus been lost. The same applies to a branch of both Italian and European cultural history, of which operas were an important part in the years 1800-50.

The Royal Theater and virtually the rest of the Danish theater stages through the 19th century and up to our time have only played a handful of the 2500 operas that were written in Italy in the first half of the 19th century. Denmark can be grateful to the Danish king Christian VIII (1786-1848) for one only exception. The king admired Italian opera, which he himself, as crown prince, had experienced in, among other places, Naples. In the years 1841-54, King Christian VIII and his successor supported the establishment of an Italian-run and popular opera company at the Court Theater right next to the current Danish parliament, Christiansborg. Here, thanks to him and The Italians at the Court Theater as they were called, the Danes were presented with a total of 48 of the Italian operas which were most popular in their homeland at the time.

Denmark is certainly no exception. My first book highlighted the many Italian composers and their works from the years 1800-50, even in their own homeland, were gradually forgotten by the public. This  fall into oblivion did not necessarily take place because  their operas were bad, but because the audience’s tastes continuously changed throughout the 19th century. Their works are still stored in archives. It is in this light that we must see Rossini’s declining popularity and the disappearance of many of his works from the world’s opear stages right up to today.

What historic performance of a Rossini opera would you have liked to attend?

It is difficult for me to select one single performance. If I could get into a time machine and put on my research glasses, I’d like to experience some of Rossini’s great failures at their premieres – because what really happened? I would like to see and hear with my own eyes and ears and get a first-hand impression of the reception, when operas such as Il Signor Bruschino (1812), The Barber of Seville (1816), La Donna del Lago (1817) and Ermione (1819) was staged for the very first time and was poorly received. It could be interesting to see the immediate reactions and hear what the audience said that evening about the individual works.

If I could take off my research glasses and look forward to some of the operas I would have loved to experience at that time, I would choose performances at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, where the audience could see and hear some of the world’s best singers. Not least, it would be very interesting to experience Rossini’s wife, the opera star Isabella Colbran, when she was at the peak of her career. I would particularly like to see and hear her in operas such as Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815), Armida (1817) and La Donna del Lago (1819), which later became a great success, despite a poor premiere.

Which Rossini opera do you feel is most neglected and do you have an opinion about why that might be?

I think that Ermione deserves a worthy place in the standard opera repertoire. It was forgotten for many years, and has finally been recorded on DVD, so it is now possible to watch it all over the world. But the opera came to suffer from a bad reputation. After its failure, it was given only three performances before Rossini withdrew the work. There may have been several reasons for this: the work was late-classical in character, with an action based on French playwright Jean Racine’s play Andromaque (1667), and thus was not in accordance with the audience’s more modern taste at the time it premiered . At the same time, Ermione committed suicide on stage, which was both too early in relation to the later breakthrough of romanticism around 1830, and perhaps also too problematic in a Catholic country. The opera was so poorly received that the premiere was not even mentioned in the local newspaper Giornale del Regno delle Due Sicilie. As has happened with other Rossini operas, the poor premiere and reception came to color posterity’s view of the work. No one examined the score and the opera was not performed anywhere. Musicologists and writers who wrote about Rossini and his work could not hear it. The work was poorly mentioned in biographies and reference works. Thus, the knowledge of Ermione came to be based on previous assessments, which others took over. Later, a different view of the work has appeared after the author Richard Osborne in his biography of Rossini (1985) described Ermione as a masterpiece. The American musicologist Philip Gossett has subsequently prepared a critical edition of the score with the necessary great thoroughness. He has described the opera as one of the best works in the history of the Italian opera tradition up through the 19th century.

When you go to the opera what is of primary importance to your enjoyment- the production, the musical direction, or the soloists?

As a starting point, I would say that it is of course best if both soloists, conductor and director live up to my expectations. The action is also important to me. It must be able to capture me in a way that is relevant to me at the time when I experience the opera. For me, it is paramount that there are good singers. If the singers don’t live up to my expectations, I lose interest. The conductor is also important. If it’s a good conductor and a good orchestra, I enjoy following the music along the way. If the conductor and the orchestra don’t follow the soloists or play imprecisely, I obviously don’t get that experience. The same applies if the music plays too loudly in some places, so that the orchestra sometimes during a performance almost drowns the singers. If the singers are good, it doesn’t matter if the director instead delivers a staging that is uninteresting or downright confusing. If you know the drama in advance, it means less. So the most important performers in an opera production are, in my opinion, in order of priority: 1) The soloists 2) The conductor 3) The director.

You made Rossini’s letters an important part of your source material. What is the single most important thing you learned from them, for example:

a. facts

Above all, the letters make it possible to determine relatively accurately how Rossini moved around during his career from 1812 until it came to an end in 1829. This is of course important in relation to a biography of him. They follow his reflections on a number of his operas and experiences in connection with the world premieres, of which he was almost all in charge himself. It also appears both from the letters to the parents and from Rossini’s correspondence in general, that he had close connections with the political authorities of the time. He benefited from the support of the French rule in occupied Italy 1812-15, the royal administration in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich from 1815-1822 and the administration under the French royal house in the period 1824-30. After his last opera in 1829, we can also follow his thoughts and experiences after the uprising in Paris in 1830 and King Charles X’s abdication in favor of the Bourgeois King Louis Philippe, who did not support Rossini.

b. insights into the personalities involved

Contrary to the myth about Rossini, his letters to his parents reflect that he was very diligent and that he did not take his work or his art lightly. Together with the other letters and documents published by the Fondazione Rossini in Pesaro, the collection gives a picture of his growing self-awareness and increasing artistic freedom in relation to the operas he wrote in Naples. The letters as a whole give an insight into Rossini’s abilities as a “businessman” – as a legally very knowledgeable composer who had no problems breaking agreements on appointments on new commissioned operas and deadlines if he could not be held accountable. Most importantly, they provide a picture of a man who had a very close relationship with his mother. The letters he wrote to his wife Isabella Colbran after their marriage had stopped working also show that behind the jovial facade, Rossini could be both cynical and cold when he felt let down. Through the exchange of letters with his father, who was a horn player, and Isabella Colbran, who had previously been both admired and feted, we simultaneously get a picture of how two artists came down in the world both personally and financially after their careers had ended.

c. things that were not generally previously known?

The letters reveal Rossini’s thoughts about a possible early retirement, his situation in connection with the uprising in Paris in 1830 and his problematic relationship with Isabella Colbran. Among the central letters in the collection are his own account of the premiere of The Barber of Seville and his forgiving letter to his father after he had failed to tell Rossini of his mother’s death.

The letters have also made it clear that Rossini was not – as was evident for many years from the literature about him – already in 1815 employed as music director for a long period of years in Naples. He continuously signed several different contracts, which eventually brought him to the last positions, first as Conductor of the Royal Chapel (Maestro di Capella) and then as Music Director for the royal theatres. That he went to Rome shortly after the first contract to write and stage Torvaldo and Dorliska (1815) and The Barber of Seville (1816) has previously formed part of the image of him as a jovial, lazy and superficial genius who did what suited him – in this case instead of being responsible to his job as newly appointed Music Director in Naples. In reality he had no such obligations when he came to Naples. It was only several years later that he got the prestigious and demanding job.

Thomas Milholt “Manden bag Masken” Paperback. Published  May 2020. ISBN 978 87 7184 444; Aarhus University Press.