I had an interesting note the other day from Michael Seligman of Santa Barbara, California. It read, in part:
...As you know, toward the end of the 2nd World war, Naples had suffered the most terrible bombing damage and was in ruins. Many of the beautiful piazzas were full of rubble. I was part of the Allied Forces…my job was primarily running radio stations for the armed forces radio service… I love classical, jazz, and other music and felt strongly that music was enjoyed by all, crossed language barriers, and could reduce the unhappiness of locals at having foreign military installations on their native soil…I was fortunate in being able to play a small part in discussions and planning for finding some quick way to help lift the local people out of their deep depression. The final choice for the quickest and possibly most effective thing we could do was to reopen the San Carlo…
…We had a system of loud speakers in many locations throughout the city for announcements. We expanded this public address system and had auditions of both instrumentalists and vocalists broadcast all over the city and the positive reaction of the Neapolitans was dramatic. Thousands came to listen to the auditions, and the sound of their beloved music blocked out some of the despair over the visible destruction in the city. The re-opening of the San Carlo was a festive and beautiful event...
Mr. Seligman then asked me if I knew anything about it. I didn't. What follows is the result of a bit of research stimulated by his interesting note. I consulted a few sources, among which were
-"The San Carlo Chronicles" by Guido Pannain in Il Teatro di San Carlo, published by the autonomo del teatro, no date given but approx. 1950; and
-a number of
items that appear on the marvelous website, Opera
in Naples, 1944.
Italy entered WWII on the side of Germany on June 10, 1940, with a declaration of war against Britain and France. In November of that year, the Italian ports of Brindisi, Bari and Naples were bombed by the British. By September, 1943, Naples had suffered some 200 British and US air raids and was the most heavily bombed Italian city of the war.
In spite of all that, the cultural life of Naples continued, certainly not unabated, but given the circumstances it is amazing that there was any cultural activity at all. San Carlo did indeed continue opera for the 1940/41 and 42/43 seasons. Bombing damage in 1943, however, though it did not destroy San Carlo, was severe enough to close the theater, apparently "for the duration." The "duration" was not long in coming. The Allies landed at Salerno on September 9, 1943 and had liberated Naples by October 1.
The published history of
the theater (Pannain, above) says: "Substantially spared,
although damaged in some parts of the structure…,
the San Carlo was requisitioned by the English
military authorities during October, 1943. [Opera]
performances recommenced on December 26 of that
year, intended for the Allied troops. The civilian
population was admitted, but only to the gallery and
loggia. The occupation lasted until 1946."
This image (above,
right) of a San Carlo program from 1945 comes to me
through the kindness of Pat White in
British sources (cited at Opera in Naples, 1944, above) say:
…when Capt. Francis visited the Theatre on November 7th and opened the doors for the first time…the scene was amazing…Bomb damage had blasted the foyer that runs the whole length of the theatre…there were no curtains or scenery on the stage…Many of the boxes on the sixth floor were unusable. All the dressing rooms had been hit, the scenery and paint shop, the costume and wardrobe stores were beyond repair…The only things left standing were the music stands in the vast orchestra pit and these only because they were fixed to the floor.
In one week (!) the theater was
cleared, at least for some musical productions, if not
opera. Allied military revues played in November and
December. In the meantime, the word went out to search
for members of the old opera company, the musicians,
singers, conductors, chorus, stage hands, etc. A
symphony concert by a 60-piece orchestra was given in
San Carlo on Sunday, November 21. On Sunday, December
26, the opera season opened with La Boheme.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the re-opening, Brian Grayson, Captain, R.A.S.C. made the following comments (cited at Opera in Naples, 1944, above):
…Just a year ago, on November 15th l943, when the battle raged but a few miles away, we opened with an Italian revue. Since then, with the exception of a few days of rehearsals, not a day has passed without a presentation on this stage…On December 26th, true to Italian tradition, the Opera Season opened with La Boheme, and from that date onwards…opera has been presented daily…The orchestra of 98 is permanently engaged and 260 Italians form the theatre staff. Civilians are permitted to visit the Opera; thus we have given back to the Italian people something which is very precious to them, and in so doing gave added proof of our wish to liberate and not to conquer…
should note the extreme circumstances under which the
Phoenix-like rebirth of San Carlo took place. The
months of October and November, 1943, were anything
but stable in Naples. The front was just a few miles
to the north, and the retreating German army had
placed time-bombs in the city. One exploded at the
Naples post office on October 8, killing 100 persons,
and smaller ones went off on October 10 and 21.
Electrical power was restored on Nov. 2, an event that
forced the evacuation of 500,000 persons(!) from the inner city to the suburbs out of fear that
the new flow of current would set off more time bombs.
That did not happen, but "jittery" doesn't begin to
describe the atmosphere of the city on the days
preceding the re-opening of the theater. Yet, on the
day after Christmas, Mr. Seligman's "festive and
beautiful event" came to pass. He reports that he was
"smitten" by the soprano! I remain
smitten by the whole story.