Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 2 (Spring 2003)

In Response to Thorburn's "What News on the Rialto"

By Colin Eatock

According to an old joke, the New York subway has become so crowded that nobody takes it anymore. In "What News on the Rialto?" Sandy Thorburn similarly argues that Venetian opera was a victim of its own success.

Venice was, of course, the birthplace of commercial opera, and Thorburn places this phenomenon in the context of the Serene Republic's popularity as a tourist destination for wealthy Europeans, comparing it to Disneyland. To support this claim, he offers the contemporary account of Limojon de Saint Didier, who wrote, "The famous freedom of Venice attracts foreigners in droves."

Within the context of this environment, Thorburn offers a lively and informative account of the relationship between opera and publicity in the 17th-century. It is interesting to see how little has really changed in the last 350 years: that, then as now, publicity was used to persuade the public that it wanted whatever the theatres had to offer before a single ticket was sold. Thorburn explains how this was achieved through the mass-produced scenario (a kind of synopsis/brochure), through word-of-mouth and through a remarkably sophisticated postal system. As well, the author touches insightfully on the tangled web of symbioses that made the first newspapers possible. (Again, we see that little has changed.)

However, when he speaks of the use of these media to "control" the public, I grow skeptical. It is always tempting to suggest that the rich, powerful and ingenious hold complete sway over public opinion, that publicity is a form of control. To me this seems rather inflated: I would prefer the word "influence" - even when that influence is so successful and pervasive that it appears to be a kind of control. If publicity really had the power to control - if it could, in effect, guarantee the success of a venture or an idea - the world would be a very different place. Such heavily promoted big-budget Hollywood flops as Ishtar and Waterworld attest to the fact that the public has a mind of its own. Control is never fully achieved.

As for Thorburn's assertion that the quality of Venetian opera declined at the end of the 17th century, this is not an opinion I care to challenge. Yet when he puts forward the fact that most operas from late 17th century Venice "did not live beyond their initial success" as evidence of this decline, he wades into waters as murky as the Grand Canal. Was this not normal throughout the baroque period? Didn't most of Handel's operas fail to live much beyond their first productions?

But enough quibbling. Clearly something caused Venetian opera to lose ground to Naples, Paris and other centres. Thorburn's suggestion that short-sighted, publicity-driven, commercial interests led to a kind of artistic ossification in Venice is well worthy of consideration.

Colin Eatock is an M.A. candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto. He currently holds master's degrees in music composition and music criticism, and contributes articles on music to Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, as well as other publications.